Radiya stood at the center of the Proving Ground.
Surely a stupid name, she thought. For how could it make sense for a wide, bare patch of dirt to be used in the final test for full entrance into the Canopy Guardians when they did their fighting from the treetops? Even now, as she turned her eyes skyward, she could see the novices—some upright, others with their legs dangling over the edge of the barrack porches—looking down on her as she stood in the place they all hoped to stand someday, given the chance to prove themselves worthy of the faded moss kerchiefs tied round the necks of the two Guardians standing behind her. But, no, as much as they may have wished to stand there one day soon, none of them wanted to stand in her place that day.
You see, fellow traveler, the Proving Ground was not strictly a military plot of land; when needed as such, it also served a judicial purpose, as those accused of crimes against others stood to be proved guilty or innocent before the appointed judging party. More often than not, the crimes being argued over were of a small nature—to all but those involved, of course—and, thus, they did not warrant more than a judge appointed from one of Anasthyn’s great families or from the captains of the Guardians. There were times, however, when the crime, or the situation surrounding said crime, was such that it required the presence and attention of the King and Queen. Even then, the majority of Anasthyn ignored the proceedings of the Proving Ground, trusting that the truth would be found and that justice would be meted out swiftly and fairly with the protection, safety, and advancement of all Anasthyn at the core of the given decision. That is how it had always been, and no one had any reason to worry that something other than that would occur.
But that day was different. And it is that difference that calls us there, to that time and place. For never before had a member of the royal family been the one, the accused, standing at the center of the Ground. Never before had it been one of fal Mountainclaw awaiting decision. Giving decision, certainly. But never the other. Never.
And she a princess at that. The only carry of the name that had sat in the Royal House since its very beginning.
Yes, indeed, that day was different.
None of the folk that had flocked to the Proving Ground, whether from a sense of civic responsibility or simple unrestrained curiosity, would have wanted to stand in her place that day. Not those from the far reaches of Anasthyn, deep in the Eastern Forests, and not those that had come up from Cotya. They stood outside the Ground, encircling the rectangular patch of sparse grass from down in the dirt to high in the trees, watching her, staring at her, but Radiya could sense they did not want to come any closer. Yes, they wanted to see, but they did not want to touch or to be within grasp. They knew better than that. They all knew better than that.
Those spread out beyond the throng she could see, she could hear as they muttered to one another about her, the princess. About what she was accused of doing. About what she had done. The low murmur of their hushed but eager natter moved around her as a wind through the trees. Never louder. Not while the Guardians stood among them in such presence, and not while they waited as starved as crows for decision to be given on her.
It made her sick… the hypocrisy of it all. After all, the way of the world was not Radiya’s doing. They could not hold it against her that she happened to be touched by Magic, that it made her special, powerful. She had not brought it into existence, and she was undoubtedly not one of them that had brought it to the land. Though she had dreamed of just that.
The great families of Anasthyn were only known as such because they were felid. There were no great untouched families. How could there be? One is only made great by strength and power; families are only great because of their strength and power. Everyone in Anasthyn was accepting of that fact, so why was she being forced to stand in the center of the Proving Ground simply for exercising her own strength and power, for exhibiting her own greatness?
Proving Ground… a stupid name. Proving herself is exactly what she had been doing during her so-called crimes.
To her left stood her accusers: five of them, little girls each, sisters, all trying to hide behind the legs of their parents. Someone had dressed them up in new bonnets and tried to cover their scars, the physical and the emotional, but Radiya thought they did not look so different than when they had been running through the dark, turning their heads, trying to anticipate from which direction she would next come at them. Their faces that night had been a near endless thrill to her—the fear, the unknowing, written upon them in every twitch of muscle, every bead of sweat, every quiver of lip—like a sort of living poetry dedicated to Radiya’s terrible greatness. She had stared at them from the darkness, veiled in her felid form, fascinated by the sad lives of the untouched, at what constant fear they must live under, knowing they do so only at the whim of much more powerful beings. Why anyone would want five of the things, she could not understand. It would truly have been a mercy if she had ended their insignificant lives then and there.
And she could have. There, in the night, beneath the black shadows of the forest cast by the old, grey moon, she could have taken their lives without a single one of them feeling anything more than a faint scratch on their throats… and then nothing at all.
But then her fun would have ended, and too soon. It had seemed better at the time to scare them, to grant them another headstart, and to chase them down again—reveling all the while in their fright. Their appropriate and justified fright.
Looking at them now, she could not help but wish she had shown them that dreadful favor, had finished them instead of played with them. Who did they think they were anyway? They were nothing compared to her. There, entwined about their parents’ limbs, they stood only in her grace and by her mercy. Just as they always had. Even with the two Guardians behind her, she could have ended their testimony before a single word had been uttered. And, yet, they stood in accusation of her while she stood at the center of that mocking charade.
One of them looked up at Radiya from underneath her bonnet, from behind her mother’s knee. Seeing Radiya looking back at her, the little girl turned away, and Radiya smiled as the scent of the child wetting herself came to her on the forest breeze. Yes, they were still the same. Still afraid. Still in awe of her. And rightly so. They would bear her marks long, and those marks would tell of her eminence.
The Guardians behind the princess stiffened, heightened in their awareness, as Radiya exhaled slowly, purring, the ends of her mouth twisting upward.
To her right stood Sahlia. Her best friend. Sahlia Belltree. Daughter of one of the great families and the closest Radiya could find among the children of those trees to an equal. They had played so many games together across the years—the Belltree always at Radiya’s side, encouraging her, bolstering her. It had been Sahlia with her when she set off the warning drums during a visit from one of the high Ravellans. It had been Sahlia that watched as she forced Madam Brunt to stop her lesson on the geography of the Northern Peaks so to bow before her pupil. It had been Sahlia who had laughed always as she made countless undue demands on the untouched shopkeepers around the Town Circle. And it had been Sahlia who had cornered the girls with her, who had conspired with her as she toyed with them like the playthings they were. Just another game for the princess of Anasthyn and her loyal companion.
Then it had been Sahlia that had tried to hold her back from chasing them down, had pleaded with her to let them go. It had been Sahlia that had fled to the tame comfort of the Belltree home when she saw the wild rapture in Radiya’s dark eyes as she turned on her friend and proclaimed, “They are mine to do with as I wish.”
And so Sahlia was at Radiya’s side once again, not as companion—and certainly not as anything approaching loyal—but as witness to her guilt. Radiya had stood unmoving, glaring, as Sahlia had described the events of that night, but the Belltree had never once returned her gaze, delivering her testimony through tears and sobs. As she had told those gathered that, though it was the same Radiya she had always known, that night had been the first time she was ever truly scared of the princess, Radiya’s one-time ally had lowered her head in what had appeared to be shame. Then, of all things, she had apologized. She had apologized for her part in what took place, for not seeing what Radiya was becoming, and for all the times she had participated alongside her in similarly cruel fun. Sahlia had lost another heavy tear while speaking of their acts as “fun”. It had always been Radiya’s word.
It was then that the Mountainclaw carry realized how weak Sahlia Belltree was, how weak she had always been. All those times she had thought Sahlia to be at her side, the truth was that she had been cowering behind, watching in fear and awe as Radiya did everything herself. As Sahlia stood there now, between her parents, her cloak pulled low over her face, long hair braided and set behind where no one could see, trying to hide her eyes from Radiya’s gaze, that daughter of the supposedly great fal Belltree was no better than the frightened untouched opposite her. A proud felid brought low by apology and shame when all she should have felt shame for was her misguided need to apologize.
It made Radiya sick. It all made her sick. The truly powerful have nothing to apologize for. It seemed that no one understood that but her. But they soon would. Soon, indeed. She looked at each body gathered there in that corner of the forest and smiled, knowing they would all soon learn a valuable lesson on what it meant to possess true power.
Afore her stood her parents, the king and queen of the Eastern Forests, keepers of the Royal House at Anasthyn. And, if anyone understood true power, it was fal Mountainclaw, for there had been a Mountainclaw at the head of Anasthyn since the very coming of Magic, from the reign of Carys to the reign of Radiya’s father, Rosme, over whose shoulders she could see the House at the center of the Town Circle, set apart from the rest of the forest, the bright curtains at its many open-air windows rustling in the gentle wind like the wildflowers beneath the trees and the Old Tall at its heart stretching high above pitch and gable and reaching ever for the sky. Other Towns had changed leadership: Brynn, Bogdyn, the Curs, the Raves, even Rafen had once been under another’s control. But the Royal House at Anasthyn had always been occupied by a Mountainclaw. And, someday, it would belong to Radiya, as would all that surrounded it.
And that day might not be far off, as Radiya was nigh her nineteenth year, which is probably why they were having to go through with the absurd pretense at all.
Her father walked toward her, and Radiya could not help but grin in anticipation of her imminent victory over the silly indictments that had been laid upon her, and she could not wait to smile in the face of each of the fools around her as they bowed in reverence and fealty. Especially her one-time friend, Sahlia Belltree, who she would be sure to press low in the dirt.
Proving Ground. Indeed.
“You have placed me in a very embarrassing and awkward position, Radiya,” King Rosme began, his voice quiet but stern. “And you could not have picked a worse time to do so, with rumblings of ruffian activity coming from all corners. Word has become so worrying that there are even some who say the Jekkels are returning. And, just when I should be getting to the bottom of these matters, I am having to deal with another of your spoiled and privileged—”
His mouth snapped shut, impeding his words, and he took in a slow breath through his nostrils as he tried to quell his rising fluster and regain control over his appearance.
“There could not have been a good time for you to do this,” he continued in hushed earnestness. “Your actions here are indefensible. What you have put those poor Tinse children through is inexcusable, irresponsible, and unbefitting your, or any, station.”
Tinse? Radiya had not known their name. In truth, she sometimes forgot the untouched even had names. It was not as if their names meant anything.
“There is no way back from this,” said Rosme. “The situation you have put me in, the situation you have put us all in, there is no coming back. You have left us… You have left yourself no alternative but to face judgment.”
Radiya looked at her father, confused. She had expected anger. She had expected to be berated in a good show for the masses. She had expected a grand theater of disapproval. But she had been unprepared for the deliberately quiet man trying to hold himself together in front of her.
“I…” His voice broke as he tried whispering to Radiya. “I am sorry.”
A chill passed through her flesh, and her eyes shot wide.
“I know I am partly to blame. Your mother and I… we were so intent on giving you everything you could ever want. You, our only child, you were all we ever wanted, so we wanted to give you everything you could ever want. And, in so doing, we failed to give you that which you truly needed… what my parents gave me, what my father gave me.”
Beroth Mountainclaw, Radiya’s grandfather, stood behind her mother, 80 years old and still with no need for a cane and not a single grey hair in his beard (though that which swept back from his forehead had long ago taken on the wiser color). Twelve years ago, Radiya had stood in the round room at the base of the Old Tall and watched as her grandfather had passed the Leather Crown to his son, her father. It had been the first she, or anyone still living, had ever seen Beroth Mountainclaw weep. That day on the Proving Ground was the second.
He did not look away from his granddaughter though. No, his eyes remained fixed on her as tears made lines down his face that disappeared into his beard. He stood resolute as ever, as he had by the bed of his wife, Cassandra, as sickness ushered her into the next life. It was Radiya who turned away first, afraid of what else his face might show her if she persisted in looking.
Daniyel Mountainclaw was not crying and seemed determined not to start, so Radiya, seeking explanation for the King’s muted performance, found only unreadable resolve in her eyes. But the Queen was the first to flinch in that contest, lowering her head and brushing a wisp of dark hair behind her ear with one quivering hand. When next she raised her eyes, however, all waver was gone and she had pushed her headshawl back onto her shoulders, baring her full face and hurt for all in those Forests to witness, for her daughter to read clearly.
“The greatest thing your grandfather gave me,” Radiya’s attention hovered back to Rosme, “was a sense of responsibility.… A sense of purpose. Of service to a calling greater than one’s self. I have failed you in this regard. For that, I am more deeply sorry than I shall ever be able to make you understand. And, yet, I still have that responsibility upon myself. It still falls to me to act on that greater purpose, to attend to those that surround us here, to give my all in service and sacrifice to Anasthyn. I know you will not appreciate this now, but know, please remember, that this is the hardest thing I have ever had to do as king—that any king has ever had to do, I suspect—and that, while I give decision on you, I also give decision on myself.
“Punishing you will punish me to no end.”
“Punish?” Radiya asked, and then yelled. “Punish!?!”
“Also know, my Radiya,” King Rosme grabbed her face in his large hands and pressed his forehead against hers so that she felt his breath on her clenched mouth as he spoke, “I still believe in you. And I know that you can be a great queen someday. It is my hope—a hope that I shall cling to with all my strength—that you will rise from this a new person, one who is ready to accept all that comes with her great name and great power. Despite everything, Radiya… despite your actions, despite my own failures… I still have faith that you can become great.”
Radiya broke from her father’s grasp.
“Become great? Become great!?! I am already great!”
The five Tinse girls turned away, breathless, using their new bonnets to hide their faces from the princess that had chased them that dark night as she unleashed her harsh and unsatisfied nature for all to see.
“As great as you! As great as grandfather! And greater than all these who would stand in judgment of me! I am the definition of power! And when I rule—!”
She spat on the Proving Ground, wild in her eyes.
“Oh, dear heart.” The Queen, her mother, approached, pleading, but Beroth’s hand held her back. “This is not power. This is ego. This is madness. True power comes from inspiring others, not from ruling them.”
“You want to see true power?” Radiya spun in circles, shouting at the gathered crowd. “I’ll show you power! I’ll show you all! And you will bow at the name of Radiya Mountainclaw!”
“Radiya Mountainclaw!” She snapped at the sound of her father’s voice booming over the forest. “You have been proved guilty.”
“GUILTY!?!” she yelled back, her own voice no less loud but drenched in desperation. “All that I am guilty of is being better than all I see around me!”
“You will be shackled, hooded, and placed underground…”
“YOU CANNOT STAND IN JUDGMENT OF ME!”
“…until such time as you have reached repentance…”
“I STAND IN JUDGMENT OF YOU!”
“…for your crimes and can rightfully begin…”
“AND I FIND YOU ALL WEAK!”
“…to redeem yourself in service to others.”
“ESPECIALLY YOU, SAHLIA BELLTREE!”
Radiya kicked up a cloud of dust as she twirled to face her long-time companion, spittle flying from her mouth and her outstretched arm shaking as it extended an accusing finger toward Sahlia, who shrank farther behind her parents.
“I will not forget what you’ve done.” Her voice and limb lost their excited quiver, became deliberate and cold, and she turned the finger on the spectating mob, giving her own decision. “I will not forget any of you!”
Those were the last words she spoke in freedom—though they were not her last words. The two Canopy Guardians charged with overseeing her had grabbed her arms and shackled her hands before she even realized what was happening. She did not even have time to change. Her hands bound at her back, she changed anyway as they tried to drag her away from the Proving Ground, and everyone looked on in horrified fascination as the princess took her between form and thrashed at her cuffs, snapped her long teeth at anyone so curious or foolish enough to get close, and kicked her powerful legs against the land in an effort to drive her warders off balance. In all, it took seven Guardians to walk her, screaming, out of the Proving Ground and across the Town Circle to the underground entrance near the southeast corner of the Royal House.
She never stopped yelling. Not when they dragged her beneath the dirt. Not when they got her into her permanent place and chains. Not even when the hood was tied over her head. She never stopped yelling.
Threats. Curses. Sickening peals of mad laughter. She never stopped.
The sound of Radiya’s voice, strained to the limits of her lungs, came to haunt the Royal House at Anasthyn and all that moved within. The house servants, those that fulfilled the day’s menials, described it as “the constant gathering of a storm that blasts but never breaks” and told their loved ones that the princess’s discontent could be heard in every splinter of wood which enfolded their livelihood, though most of them lost their lively and half of them resigned their positions. The Canopy Guardians who stood post around the royal residence styled it differently, referring to Radiya as “the scritch” (after the bird which is known to some in those Forests as “white death” and is said to visit those whose end is nigh). Callers to the heart of Anasthyn noticed quickly how its color faded, how the Old Tall dressed itself in the grey pallor of one who dons mourning clothes for a friend, and they spread the story about until folk stopped calling at the doors of the King and Queen altogether.
As for them, the King was seen less and less by all outside his home, and those that did see him saw him only at a window high in his upper rooms, and they reported to all that would listen that he was withered and aged. The Queen, however, was seen often, frequently trying to sneak unnoticed into the underground where her daughter was kept or taking lonely walks through the forest, but she was always covered in shawl and cloak and she no longer spoke with those whose path crossed her own. Not with any spirit.
Eventually, the Royal House was silent but for Radiya’s screams, and the specter of them began to creep across the Town Circle and into the homes and trades of the felid and untouched alike, as a hiding fog through the forest, seeking and shrouding all in gloom, where they could bury themselves into the nightmares of children of all ages.
And, when Anasthyn’s melancholy was not enough, they stole beyond, throughout the Eastern Forests, until the cries of the Mad Princess colored all in edge and shadow, and none found peace. Why, there were even some who claimed they could be heard as far away as Cotya, and the fieldhands there began to long for the daylight when they could cross the Long Water in escape.
The screaming of Radiya Mountainclaw lasted longer than anyone bothered marking until, one day, her screaming stopped. Not fading out so much as falling apart. But, by then, her wild bellows were become so ingrained into the auditory life of the tall trees and those that called them home that it was a couple tenner before anyone other than the Queen took notice of the new silence underground.
And then… as you will see, fellow traveler… it simply did not matter anymore.