Lacuna - N.R. Walker
The winter sun was at high noon, shining a spotlight on the two men sword-fighting in the open courtyard of the Northlands’ castle. Mirroring the rocky outcrops in the snowy landscape, black flags marked with a single white raven shimmered in the cool winds. Dark grey stone bricks gleamed as the sunlight turned icy frost into fleeting jewels, and the clang of metal on metal, grunts of effort, and bouts of laughter echoed skyward.
The broadsword grazed Crow’s cheek, the burn of sliced skin and a warm trickle of blood down his cheek made him smile. Soko paused for the briefest moment, horrified that he had struck his king. Crow used the moment of distraction and swung for his neck. Soko parried, and with another bark of laughter, the fight went on.
Plumes of steam escaped with every exhale, sweat cooled on heated skin. Crow’s dark hair was damp and clung to his pale face; his dark eyes sparkled with delight as they always did when he sparred with Soko. Friends since childhood, Crow trusted no one as he trusted Soko. Surrounded by consuls and guards and staff who abided by his every whim, he could count on Soko for his honesty and reason. He told him truths when no one else dared, and he never held back when they fenced or sparred, such as they were doing now.
Crow was bound by responsibility and duty, as kings often were. Even as a small boy, Crow had studied the ancient ways, the lore of his ancestors of the Northlands. Studied, trained, studied, trained when he’d have rather done anything else, and yet it was Soko who had willingly stood beside him. Brothers, even if there was not one drop of shared blood between them.
Soko’s hair was ashen blond and shaggy, his eyes blue and sharp. He had a smile of mischief and wit, a keen mind for learning and a keener eye for women, whereas Crow was dark and brooding, and his eye was drawn to the forms of men. Soko was free to act upon his impulses and there had never been a shortage of satisfied women in the Northlands’ castle, yet Crow had never been free.
Who wears the mark bears the crown . . .
Bound by responsibility and duty. And the birthmark on his wrist. Even the mere thought of it . . .
He hissed at the pain and dropped his sword, pulling at the leather wrist guard, fumbling to get the straps undone.
“What is it?” Soko asked, immediately concerned. “It itches still?”
“No,” Crow breathed. He finally pulled the guard from his arm and covered the birthmark with his cold fingers. “It burns.”
“Burns? What the—”
Just then, the heavy wooden doors to the courtyard swung inward. Soko spun into a ready stance with his sword raised to protect Crow, without fault, without question. The young messenger raised his hands in alarm, breathing hard, his eyes trained on the blade.
“What is it?” Soko demanded.
“Excuse me, my lord,” the messenger said, bowing his head to Crow. “A lone rider comes. At pace.”
A lone rider coming to the city was not uncommon. Villagers traded food and wares all the time. “What of it?” Crow asked, still clutching his wrist. “Why the urgency?”
The messenger swallowed hard. “The rider and horse bear the yellow flag of the Elders’ Consul.”
Soko lowered his sword and turned to Crow, his eyes wide and face ashen, for it could only mean one thing.
The birthmark on Crow’s wrist continued to burn.
Dressed now in warmer clothes, Crow and Soko stood at one of the grand hall windows watching as the yellow-clad rider made his way through the gates of the castle. Crow had his guards meet the man, one taking his horse, one escorting the rider inside, out of view, knowing it would take several minutes for the rider to be brought to see him.
Crow held his wrist, trying to ignore the burn.
“It’s never caused you pain before,” Soko noted. “And I don’t think a visit from the Elders’ Consul is a coincidence.”
Crow winced again and Soko took his hand, inspecting the birthmark. It looked as it always had; dark against his pale skin, oddly beautiful and abstract, the clear form of a raven in full flight, its wings outstretched. The mark which showed Crow’s predestined fate appeared no different; though it had begun to itch at the last full moons, now it burned like fire ants crawling beneath his skin.
Crow tugged his hand away and pulled down his coat sleeve. “I’m fine,