The city square was filled by an excited crowd trying to catch a glimpse of the royal procession. Tension rang through the air because the square was lined with the new Black Cloaks of the royal guard. The royal family had never needed such a contingent before, but ever since the newly crowned Queen Alexandria had agreed to marry Prince Ranulph from the Northern Isle there had been rumours of increased threats to the royal family. For weeks the taverns had been abuzz with the talk that the Queen was going to abdicate her throne so that the Prince could take her place as king.
Nobody could understand what was happening. Only a week ago there had been a royal decree outlawing magic and worship of the goddess. She was to be replaced by a more formal male god-figure. Already there had been several witch burnings that had caused panic among the common folk.
For a thousand years the Southern Isles had been ruled as a matriarchy, descending. Queen Alexandria was the latest in the unbroken line. By her side should be her sisters, Princess Katharine and Princess Alyce.
But the princesses were nowhere to be seen on this unusual coronation day. Some said Princess Alyce had remained at Pemblebury and nobody knew where Princess Katharine had gone.
A loud trumpet blast announced that the royal carriage was entering the square and the crowd strained forward to get a better look.
The royal coach was painted in shining black with ornate swirls of gold. It was pulled by six black horses with plaited tails and manes. The coachman sat erect at the front with the reins held loosely in his hands. A guard sat on either side of him, both wearing black cloaks with gold embossed around the trimming. On the door of the coach was a gold figure of a wolf—not the usual three-moons symbol of the royal family.
Seated inside the open coach were the soon-to-be king and queen. He sat tall beside the much smaller feminine figure—dressed in a suit of black armour with one hand resting lazily in his lap. The other hand was signalling to the guard to go faster. He wanted to get this damned coronation business over and done with. The sooner it gets sorted the sooner he can get on with shaping this country the way he wanted it. The first task was to deal with those who dealt in witchcraft. He was determined to stamp this scourge from existence once and for all.
Despite the forbidding countenance of the king, most eyes in the crowd were turned toward the queen. She was the most beautiful woman any of them had ever seen. Her slender arms were encased in white silken gloves and her small hands were folded quietly in her lap. Queen Alexandria appeared to be no more than twenty years old but she looked to be every bit regal dressed in her gown of deep purple silk that was flecked with golden thread. The gold sparkled in the morning sunshine. On her head she wore the Tiara of the Southern Isles. It was the same worn by every queen since Ethel the Red first took the throne. The small, golden tiara sat neatly in Queen Alexandria’s hair. It too sparkled in the morning sunshine. Her hair was arranged in an elaborate plait circled on top of her head with a single long plait that reached down to her waist. Her silver hair contrasted beautifully with the golden tiara. At her throat she wore a single black broach in the shape of a wolf rather than her usual adornment of the pendant of three moons.
But it wasn’t so much the queen’s clothing that attracted the attention of the crowd. It was the vacant look on her face. Most within the city were familiar with the queen. She often ventured on foot through the poorer parts of the city, handing out gold coins or taking a moment to sooth a crying child. Her beautiful face was often seen smiling down on the lowliest citizen of the city as she prayed for intercession of the goddess.
There was no sign of that person in the queen sitting stiff and erect in the carriage. Her eyes—instead of their usual bright blue flecked with white crystals—were as grey as the winter sky.
A murmur of disquiet ran through the crowd. It had been weeks since anyone had seen the queen—not since the announcement that the royal wedding would take place after the next full moon. Perhaps this also explained the non-attendance of Princess Alyce and the disappearance of Princess Katharine.
Arian was one of those urchins that had once been smiled upon by the queen. He had gone to the square early that morning, when it was still dark, to secure himself a good vantage spot to watch the royal procession. But he was sure that wasn’t his queen flying by so haughtily. He felt a shiver run down his spine. Something had happened and he knew it didn’t bode well.
From where he sat high in the bay tree at the edge of the fountain he counted the Black Cloaks that circled the square. He ran out of toes and fingers several times over. He watched in trepidation as they began moving forward. Some in the crowd jostled back and were instantly seized and thrown to the ground. A man appeared in the middle of the soldiers, his black cloak flung carelessly over one shoulder. Straggly red hair poked out from under his black hat. The captain of the guard drew his sword and suddenly the air was filled with the sound of a hundred swords being drawn. Someone in the crowd screamed and Arian slipped quietly from the tree and ran for his life. The sounds of screaming and shouting filled his ears as he ran but he didn’t stop until he was far from the city.