Fictional writing sample: The Queen’s Alchemist
Theo didn’t know what to do, so he ran.
His gasping sobs were lost under the thundering rumble of the earth, the icy wind’s howls above and the shrieks of dying soldiers echoing through the ravine. Rocks tumbled from the mountainside like leaves in autumn, crashing into campsites. Theo’s freezing feet were blistered in his too-tight boots. The terrible, pained gurgles of the wounded left to be trampled haunted his thoughts as he ran.
The battle was over. The Giants had won.
One of the foul creatures lumbered up to him, covering the half-mile between it and Theo in just a few short seconds. The Giant’s silhouette shrouded Theo in darkness, grey against the shimmering, red-stained snow. A small head was between hunched, hairy shoulders, like a shivering vagabond, and long arms outstretched. Theo screamed, jumped blindly, and narrowly dodged a hairy hand.
The monster roared. Arrows shot past Theo, and he gazed up in disbelief. Someone was here to save him!
He staggered to his feet as his saviour, a knight clad in Atharron’s colours of grey and white, wielded a bow on a bay stallion. Theo didn’t look back; to do so would mean certain death. He sprinted towards the sanctuary of the south camp. Tears frozen on his cheeks, icy breath caught in his chest, Theo knew the thundering rumbles and sounds of crunching bones would haunt him for the rest of his days.
Uldrid’s bow was so low that the tip of his long nose was close to touching his silk-clad knees. “My Queen of Atharron,” he purred. “The Dragons must smile upon you, for you are more beautiful than the brightest of stars.”
The tiniest pinch of snow flittered from his moustache and floated to the carpet, where it melted in the warmth of the coal fire.
Queen Cassandra was the epitome of perfection. Her cerulean gown rippled from the throne like a waterfall, and her cascading auburn hair was like fire, illuminating her pale face. Rose lips pursed at Uldrid’s flattery; his appearance barely brought good news.
“Speak,” she said coldly.
Uldrid straightened, and his sunken eyes met hers. He was conscious of the guardsmen, in their grey and white winter armour, clutching spears as their eyes fixed on each stiff move the man made. Uldrid cleared his throat, and gave a weak smile.
“I’m afraid King Roderic remains good on his threat, my lady,” Uldrid stammered.
Queen Cassandra’s knuckles tightened beneath her silver sleeve cuffs. “It’s a threat now, is it?” Her voice sent a chill through the warm room.
“The Giants’ War isn’t his greatest concern. He maintains that Atharron has better harvests, better fortunes, and their Queen…”
“Don’t…” Queen Cassandra’s fist slammed against the vase beside her throne; it tumbled to the floor and smashed. “…speak to me of their Queen!”
“A thousand apologies, my Lady,” Uldrid gave another sweeping bow. “But forgive me for saying what I must. Queen Anaya is still angry that your father – Gods, forgive me, the late King of Atharron – married her off to King Roderic, leaving his throne to you.”
“The immediate threat is the Giants in the north,” Queen Cassandra said, her voice trembling ever so slightly. “We cannot afford civil war with my sister’s kingdom.”
“Your wisdom sees no ends, Your Worship.” Uldrid simpered. “As War Counsellor, I shall see personally that King Roderic’s threats remain only that – threats.” He gave a third, flamboyant bow and hastened from the room.
Queen Cassandra shifted uncomfortably on her throne. To think that her own sister would betray her! She had no doubt that King Roderic had no say in this; he was Queen Anaya’s trophy, the Fourth Kingdom’s bloodline. Anaya had always been a jealous, selfish swine. Queen Cassandra smiled smugly to herself. Father always favoured me.
The young man who stood trembling on the trapdoor was barely old enough to have grown the first hair on his chin. A small crowd were gathered, murmuring quietly, as clouds above were heavily pregnant with rain; rather fitting for that morning’s execution.
“Theodore Bartholemew Ashencroft, you have been found guilty of abandoning your post at Irving’s Foothold, leading to the death of seventy-three Atharron soldiers.”
Theo gave a hoarse sob as the dirty rope was tied loosely round his neck.
“This includes the great Knight James IV of Northwind, the good Queen Cassandra’s Giant Slayer and a tragic loss to Atharron. You are hereby sentenced to death for treason and abandoning your brothers without permission.”
A series of tutting and whispers rushed through the crowd of onlookers. The Executioner’s steel mask was barely an inch from Theo’s pale cheek. The rope smelt of sweat and dust.
Theo looked towards the heavens, his tear-streaked face taking in for the last time the grey storm clouds that threatened thunder. As the last of the accusations rolled off the announcer’s tongue, and the Executioner’s large fist snapped the handle to release the trapdoor, Theo could have sworn the enormous silhouette of a Dragon flashed in the stormy sky.
The Queen’s Alchemist
Queen Cassandra watched from her balcony, forcing her trembling hands to steady. It was her first public execution, and the sight of Theo’s thin, convulsing body shudder into death made her feel sick to her stomach. Did it usually take this long for the poor souls’ last breath to escape their bodies? The crowd cheered as the first of rain sploshed onto the streets below.
After several moments where Theodore Bartholomew Ashencroft’s body shuddered to its final silence, his head limp, the crowd dispersed, already bored, their mundane lives continuing after only a moment of entertainment.
Queen Cassandra exhaled, and realised how tightly she’d been clenching her fists. A guard either side of her got to their feet, and she followed, her emerald robes flowing behind her like seaweed in an ocean. The winter air was damp, and the heaviest of the rain came as they reached the pearl balcony doors.
Queen Cassandra maintained her refined, queenly posture as she made for the royal quarters. Guards bowed, their armour clinking steel as she passed, and her slippers tapped on the carpeted corridor. When her guard closed the door behind her, the strong demeanour disappeared. Queen Cassandra buried her face into her silk gloves and wept.
Queen Cassandra almost jumped out of her skin at the soft voice from the corner of the room. She quickly straightened and dabbed at her eyes, although she knew, with a sinking heart, that the speaker had already seen her weakness.
A young man stepped from the shadows, and her heart slowly calmed back to its usual rhythm.
“I’m sorry if I frightened you,” the Queen’s Alchemist whispered. She responded with a sad smile, and reached for him with trembling hands. There was no one in Atharron she’d rather see right now.
“Are you all right?” The young man lit a floating candle with a wave of his hand, and Queen Cassandra’s large, stained eyes watched, half in fear, half in admiration. “I am now,” she whispered back, as she grasped his fingers in hers.
“There is no need to be scared, my lady. What is it you fear?”
“Nothing, I’m…” Cassandra rubbed her arms, which suddenly stippled with goosebumps. “I just witnessed my first execution.”
“Ah,” the Alchemist gave a sympathetic sigh. “Yes, it can be rather… disturbing the first time.”
He gently pulled his hand from hers. The warmth of the candle flickered close to Cassandra’s face, filling her with a sudden peace. “I know the teachings say that magic is evil, but…” she watched as the Alchemist smiled, lighting more candles around the room with a wave of his fingertips. “I can’t imagine my life without you.”
“We have been best friends for all your life, my Queen. I cannot imagine any kind of life without you, either.”
Cassandra sat with a sigh onto the four-poster bed. Without her guards, her advisors and that beastly Uldrid, the pretence was gone. It was as if an enormous weight of the whole of Atharron had been lifted from her shoulders.
“I am weak,” she uttered eventually, unable to stop her voice from trembling. All the responsibility, all the pressure of ruling was finally flooding from her. Her voice shook as she spoke in a half-whisper. “I’m not fit to rule Atharron. Perhaps my father was wrong. He should have made Anaya queen.”
“My dear Cassandra,” the Alchemist took the queen’s chin in his slender hand and turned her tear-streaked face to look at him. “Your father, the good King before you, made a fine choice choosing your pure heart and marrying your sister to King Roderic. You are a beauty unlike any other, an inspiration to us all, and a fine leader of this great kingdom.”
Queen Cassandra felt her Alchemist’s warm breath on her face, and her eyes half-closed, under his spell. But he drew away, his cool fingers withdrawing, and the crimson cloak he always wore floating behind him, slowly, as if underwater.
“Something happened earlier.” Queen Cassandra sniffed.
The Alchemist didn’t turn round, and the pattering rain on the window drowned out any sound he might have made in response.
“I felt angry. Angrier than I’ve ever been. I broke a vase.” Cassandra shuddered at the memory of her high-pitched, angered shriek when she’d lost her temper at Uldrid. “That has never happened before. I don’t have a temper, yet I frightened my guards. I frightened myself.”
“Pressures can overcome us all, my Lady. Even a Queen,” the Alchemist reassured her. His head was still turned, however, and she didn’t see him smile.
From the makeshift shelter, it was difficult to tell if the howling in the mountains was a hungry pack of wolves or just the wind. A dead horse lay half-buried in the snow, its legs twisted at odd angles and its frozen eyes black and lifeless.
Three shivering soldiers sat hunched beneath a hill of snow, which they’d gathered up with calloused, cold fingers. From the Giants’ side, it looked like just another mound of snow on the white landscape. They hoped.
James growled in pain, and tried to conceal it by biting down hard on his leather glove. The soldiers either side of him threw him anxious looks. Despite the howling snowstorm, any human sound could carry and reach the ears of their enemies. Burning pain throbbed in James’ left leg; it had succumbed to frostbite after ice had broken beneath his step, and he was loath to take off his boot and assess the full damage. He imagined raw, blackened skin, perhaps toes missing; it was difficult to tell, for anything below his ankle was completely numb, rendered useless for walking.
“They’re not coming back for us,” the youngest soldier muttered, his teeth chattering so badly he had to push his jaw into his folded arms to stop them.
“They think we’re dead,” James agreed, glad for a chance to speak and ignore the burning agony in his leg. “What’s your name, son?”
The soldier at James’ right side gave an impatient snort. “Great time for introductions,” he muttered. He was clean shaven, and shivered under his helmet.
“A man’s last moments should be comfortable, and with friends,” James shot back, wishing they could at least build a fire.
The ground rumbled, sending flurries of snow tumbling around them from the shelter. The soldiers glanced at each other in alarm, but James sighed, almost glad that it would soon be over.
“Your name, boy!” James hissed through clenched teeth at another young soldier.
“Harry,” the bald-faced boy whispered.
A second rumble.
“Well, Harry, Garred,” James IV reached for his bow, trying to steady his trembling, freezing fingers. The younger men watched as the Giant Slayer pulled an arrow from his back. Another rumble shook the ground beneath them – closer, louder. “Are you ready to fight for Atharron one last time?”
Garred gave a quiet sniffle. “We’re going to die.”
“Aye,” James was unable to stop a wild smile stretching from ear to ear, “fighting for our kingdom. There is no finer way to go, gentlemen.”
A roar rumbled above them, and the soldiers trembled. The shadow turned the white snow a dark grey, and the stench of body hair and skin almost made them choke.
“For Atharron!” James IV roared, and aimed his bow upwards. The surrounding soldiers gave brave war cries and bounded from the shelter, wielding frozen swords. The arrow whistled through the air but the angry bellow of the Giant made James’ heart sink. His arrow had missed its target. His vision was becoming blurred, and he was vaguely aware of Garred and Harry bravely fighting in their last moments. James struggled to his feet, and almost collapsed under his useless foot. No! I will not die sitting on my arse.
Arrows at his back and a lion’s roar in his heart, James glanced back through the mountains, where the tiniest of glows on the horizon showed Atharron, his Lady’s kingdom. “For Queen Cassandra!” he bellowed. He barely heard his own war cry above the overwhelming crashing of battle with what was left of the Giants.
Rain pelted the dark streets as a hooded figure darted through an alleyway. He dodged a large pile of waste, ignoring the weak yapping of the stray dog that was always sniffing around there, and stopped beside a dark door. He rapped on it four times, each consecutive knock faster than the last, and a flap in the door opened almost immediately.
“Avenite,” was the whispered password, and the flap snapped shut. The door opened, and the cloaked man slipped inside.
The room was dark save for the small, flickering fire in the corner. At first glance, it would seem as if the room was empty. The Alchemist lifted his hood from his head, sighing as rain flecked from the cloak and dripped to the floor.
Using the light of the fire, a young man sat in the corner of the room, scribbling onto a piece of parchment. His eyes were oddly glazed and two hovering, identical stones glowed in front of him, casting pale green light onto his gaunt face.
“Seeing again, Cornelius?” the man beside him asked, his long, red beard almost touching the parchment as he leaned over to see.
“Don’t… touch!” Cornelius snapped, his quill scratching so fast on the parchment it was almost a blur.
“Any news from the castle?” asked a dark-skinned man, sitting on a leather armchair in the corner. As the Alchemist’s vision grew used to the darkness, he made out Krim’s silhouette.
“Uldrid has delivered the rumours to Queen Cassandra,” the Alchemist replied, pulling the wet cloak from his shoulders. “She believes that her sister is plotting to overthrow her throne. With that and the threat of the Giants in the north, I think they’ll barely notice we’re gone.”
Krim chuckled. “Queen Cassandra will definitely notice you’re gone,” he remarked.
The Alchemist smirked. “The silly girl doesn’t even realise I’m hypnotising her most of the time.” He imitated her in an exaggerated, high-pitched voice. “‘I frightened my guards. I frightened myself.’ She really believes that she can be Queen of this wretched kingdom.”
“Let her keep it,” Krim yawned and cracked his knuckles. “The scouts have confirmed a safe passage to the east. We’ll be out of here in no time.”
“Good,” the Alchemist picked at the rug with his long fingers. “And one step closer to…”
“Immortality,” Krem finished the sentence for him, a hungry look in his eyes.
“The answer is to the eastern lands of Theldiniya. I just know it. Once we’re there, we will see the Dragons, take their power, and become kings ourselves.”
The Alchemist grinned. “Once Kouzel gets back, we’ll take our spies and march.”
Kouzel groaned. Pain ripped through his body and his bloodied fingers gripped the granite. Why was it so rough? Did they make it like this on purpose?
No. He couldn’t get distracted now. Kouzel stopped to catch his breath, his hands tight on the rock, his legs bent awkwardly to find crevices in the wall. Ice-cold night wind whipped at his body, threatening to throw him from the plinth.
No one said the Test would be easy, but Dragons above, no one warned him it would be this hard.
Kouzel didn’t know how far up he was. He didn’t dare look down, for fear or dizziness might send him tumbling to his death. What he did know was that he’d been climbing up the Staff of the Gods for hours. All night, he’d gripped the rough rock, pulling himself upwards towards the sky. It was ironic how it was named the Staff, since magic in Atharron was considered evil.
The journey to the Staff of the Gods had been tiring enough. Atharron was far from the Staff, as the enormous natural structure would send a shadow over the royal castle. Now Kouzel dared look around him, sweat almost blinding his gaze, and the kingdom’s glow glittered, awaiting his return. Though why would they wait for him? He was cursed with magic, the ultimate crime in the eyes of Atharron. The only reason Queen Cassandra had granted him this test was because he had concealed his cursed gift so well.
Kouzel groaned. Pain shot through his hands all the way to his shoulders. He couldn’t waste energy by stopping and admiring the view. He had to press on. Had to reach the peak of this accursed Staff.
Kouzel gritted his teeth as he found new footholds in the rock. He reached upwards, ignoring the hot blood that ran down his wrists. Clouds floated around him. The wind was strong, but at least the rain had stopped. He shuddered to think how slippery the rock would be in the rain.
He climbed farther. Kouzel felt as if his arms were about to pop from their sockets. Stabbing pains ripped at his muscles and crimson ran from his palms to his elbows. The wind howled above, like a Dragon roaring in welcome. The Staff wouldn’t defeat him. Kouzel could do this.
His heart almost jumped from his body when his hand slipped, leaving him dangling by one hand. He scrabbled at the wall, found a safe ledge and heaved rasping, terrified breaths. His heart pounded in terror, his bleeding hands throbbing with pain and he clutched at the rock, sobbing aloud. He was going to die… he was…
No! Kouzel gave a growl, and he wiped his bloodied hands on his tunic, first the right, then the left. With the last of his strength, Kouzel reached for the next of the rock above. Tiredness threatened him. Taking long, raspy breaths, he struggled upwards. The cold wind soothed his hot skin, even while it threatened to freeze the sweat that ran down his face.
Just a little longer.
Agony tore through his cramping muscles. His legs felt like they had turned to lead. Desperate fingers reached upwards…
Nothing, only air. No more rock. He’d reached the top!
Kouzel fought against the weakness relief brought as he scrambled upwards, gripping the mercifully flat rock of the top. He’d reached the peak. He’d done it.
He lay flat on top of the world, his chest heaving, his bloodied hands stinging and every muscle in his body aching. Finally, Kouzel’s eyes opened, and the white wisps of cloud floated above him, congratulating his victory. A smile stretched across Kouzel’s face. He sensed a warm, orange glow. Struggling to sit up, he shielded his eyes from the bright horizon where the morning sun had risen to greet him.
The wind had dropped, losing much of its earlier power. Kouzel got to his feet, a new strength filling his body as he gazed to the east, where the morning sun melted away the clouds and brought a new day, heralding the magic-cursed man’s victory. From here, the land stretched before him, more beautiful than anything he’d ever seen in his life. There it was, the east, where his fellow magic-cursed brothers said sat a land where magic would be not only accepted, but worshipped.
Green hills were bright under the morning sun’s smile, greeting Kouzel with open arms. Kouzel looked down at his hands, almost unrecognisable under the blood and fragments of rock, but he felt the powerful magic at his fingertips. No longer would he be forced to hide his gift from Atharron’s magic-hating law. He and his alchemist brothers would venture with their armies to Theldiniya, start new lives, be accepted…
And as if to roar in approval, the enormous silhouette of a powerful Dragon rose into the sky, larger than the hills and even the sun itself. Kouzel watched in mixed horror and thrill as the beast circled the sky, darted through the clouds on powerful, scaled wings, and disappeared into a flash of bright light.
It was a sign, Kouzel knew it. He would abseil down this Staff of the Gods and take his tale of victory straight to his brothers. A new age would dawn for Alchemists – no, ‘Alchemist’ had a negativity to it, like some kind of witch doctor. Kouzel smiled as he let the wind caress his hot face. He and his brothers were to be Mages. Kings. Gods.
Thus would begin their road to immortality.