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Rabbit Heart - Part I

Rabbit Heart Part I It was Muirne D’Irn’s favorite pastime to help Ser Jowan train the new guard recruits. Every few months he would call her to the training yard, and would tell the adolescent recruits about the terrifying adversary they’d be facing that day. How she had travelled across the continent to a far off mountain to train under an immortal sage, how she took on an entire army single-handedly. How she had faced a dire bear blindfolded with one hand tied behind her back and singing an old drinking song. And won. Though well-trained and handy with her blade, known of these things the old knight said about Muirne were even remotely true. Muirne was the youngest daughter of the King of Atlantis, the grandest city on all of Lemuria. She had led a highly sheltered life, but between the requisite court appearances and events, it gave her plenty of time to practice, to train. Years ago, a famous adventurer had given the King a sword that many said was magic, in thanks for his patronage, and the King had in turn given the sword to Muirne—entirely without her mother’s permission, she might add. The sword hadn’t initially been intended for her, she knew this. But that had also been the night that Ceallach, the oldest son and heir of the D’Irn family had... well, a visit from the raven herself, the goddess Mor. Fitting, considering the sword’s name: Brandubh, the Black Raven. Every time she lifted her sword, she remembered that day. She supposed she always would. It lent a certain weight to her sword craft that never ceased to surprise people, especially the guard recruits. Most of them didn’t recognize her in her practice leathers, and blonde hair pulled back away from her face, and she preferred to keep it that way. Ser Jowan usually introduced her as Mor, after the very same goddess. The intimidation usually worked, right up until they saw her petite frame. The recruits would always relax then, maybe even laugh. They wouldn’t be laughing for very long. On this particular day, Muirne faced a particularly surly group of boys. “This is Mor?” asked a skinny, freckled lad, his voice cracking. “Ai, she is,” Jowan nodded, “And what did I tell you about underestimating your opponent, Dervith?” Muirne remained silent, staring calmly at the boys. It was part of her stoic, traveling swordswoman persona. “To not.” The lad, Dervith, looked sheepish. “Well, congratulations, you get to go first.” Dervith stepped up to Muirne, who narrowed her eyes, sizing him up. Then she drew Brandubh, and the recruits couldn’t help but gasp as they saw the blade. Brandubh was thin and light, the steel dark and pliable as midnight. It seemed to absorb all the light in the air, and not even the jeweled pummel sparkled. Needless to say, the boy Dervith didn’t last very long. His training sword trembled along with his arm as he swung. His technique was sloppy, his movements telegraphed seconds before he made them, and within ninety seconds he was down, clutching his wrist from the pain that resulted from Muirne twisting the sword from his grip. For the first time that she’d laid eyes on them, Murine opened her mouth and spoke. “Who’s next?” They all fell to her blade, one by one. Muirne probably would have thought it boring had she not enjoyed seeing their smug faces crushed so much, and above all, she enjoyed the mystique. For once people weren’t bowing whenever she entered a room. At least, that’s how it was until the steward approached the training group and did bow to her. “Lady Muirne, your grace,” he began, and Muirne cringed as a chorus of whispers rose up behind her. “I know you said not to disturb you, but my news is of the utmost importance.” “Go ahead, then,” she fumed, sheathing her blade. None of the recruits would fight her now that they recognized her as the princess anyway. “Your grace, a storyteller has arrived at the palace.” Oh. Muirne raised an eyebrow. That was important. Storytellers were often powerful magicians, and knew many secrets of the world. It was custom to treat them with the utmost respect. As much as she hated the idea of another evening spent in the humid throne room, she dare not bring misery to her family, or worse, Atlantis itself. “Thank you,” she nodded, “I’ll come straight away.” The old, balding man bowed again and departed. “Jowan, I’m afraid I’ll have to cut this practice ear—“ she turned, but paused when she saw that all of the recruits had taken a knee. Muirne rolled her eyes. “Oh, sod off.” Of course, it wouldn't do to greet the storyteller in her training leathers, so she hurried up to her chambers to change. They were located on the far side of the palace, past the ballroom and the barracks, and up towards the top of the western tower. There were two doors there, one to her room and one to... well, she didn’t like to think about what was behind that door. Her chambers were open and airy; and empty, she might add. She refused to have servants dress her. She grabbed something from a wardrobe, some kind of dress, though she didn’t really care what, and ran back down to the dining hall as fast as she could in her stupid shoes. When she reached said dining hall, her father and sisters were already at table, with the storyteller seated as guest of honor. He was an older man, small and thin, with a long, hooked nose and only a bit of peach fuzz to shield his otherwise bald head. His heavy traveling cloak and ragged robes looked out of place next to her father and sisters, never mind the other members of the court who had come for dinner, all decked in the year’s finest. All eyes turned to Muirne as she entered, and the loud chatter turned to soft whispers. “Apologies for my tardiness,” she addressed the storyteller, curtsying. “I’m afraid my previous attire would have offended.” The storyteller seemed uncomfortable looking down at her from such a high place of honor. Though they were revered throughout the land, storytellers often led a simpler life among the common people. This one seemed to be no exception. “No apologies necessary,” he spoke in a high-pitched voice. “Your foresight humbles me, princess.” Her sisters, however, weren’t so forgiving. As soon as she took her place between them at the table, Eimheer turned and glared. “Why are you late?” she hissed through clenched teeth, “You could have brought dishonor onto us.” Eimheer was the oldest sister, and over the last few years had been groomed as heir and future queen of Atlantis, ever since Ceallach’s passing. She took this duty—and everything else—very seriously. Muirne knew that she would make a fine queen. But that didn’t make her any less infuriating as a sister. “Dishonor? Who cares about that?” Ròs, the middle sister, leaned over from Muirne’s other side. “We could have been cursed!” Ròs, to put it lightly, was flighty. She was a poet, a painter, and played the most beautiful songs on her harp, many of which were of her own composition. But like most artists, her fancies—and suitors—often ran away with her. The whole family wished desperately that someone would come along and anchor Ròs to the ground. But so far, no luck. “What?” Muirne turned to Eimheer, ignoring Ròs. “Would you prefer I waltz in in my bloody, sweaty leathers?” “I’d prefer that you take your position, and your title, seriously.” Eimheer’s mouth was tight. “Honestly, you’re almost as bad as Ròs.” The aforementioned sister looked offended. “She is not!” “Storyteller,” her father suddenly interrupted from the next seat over, as their voices began to grow louder, “We would have you grace us with a tale.” The king of Atlantis was a tall, strong man, a perfect emblem of the city’s strength. It was only when you got closer that you saw the sorrow and wrinkles that the tragedy of year’s past had given him. The storyteller nodded gravely and stood, creaking to the center of the floor as all the ladies and gentlemen of the court fell silent. He seemed somehow hesitant, and Muirne frowned with concern. “I’m afraid I don’t have a story of the past, your highness, but one of the future.” “An augury, then,” the king frowned. “I would hear of it.” Bowing his head, the storyteller began with trembling breath. “On a recent night, when the sky was filled with clouds, I laid myself down in an empty meadow, and just as I fell asleep, I beheld a most terrible vision in the clouds above. “I saw a great evil, my king, waking from beneath the earth. It came and devoured Atlantis, then all of Lemuria, and finally the whole world.” “What is this evil?” the king asked, standing in alarm. “I know not.” The storyteller shook his head. “For I cannot see the Truth. But in those clouds I also saw a way for this tragedy to be averted.” Muirne saw her father grip the edge of the table so hard his knuckles turned white. “Please, great one, I must know how to save my city.” The storyteller closed his eyes, as if trying to recall the details of the vision. “I saw two people sealing the evil deep beneath the waves of the sea. The identity of one eluded me, but the other I recognized as a princess of Atlantis.” Ròs gasped next to Muirne, and even Eimheer looked deeply disturbed. But surprisingly, even to herself, Muirne’s heart rose in... excitement. The whole court began muttering to itself, but Muirne hardly heard them at all. “Are you sure your eyes hadn’t... hadn’t d-deceived you?” The king managed to stutter out. “My visions never lie,” the storyteller shook his head, looking down at the floor in despair. Eimheer almost made to speak, but she was shaking so terribly that she couldn’t even stand. Taking a deep breath, it was Muirne who rose instead. “Where might one find this evil?” she asked. “At the very center of the continent,” the storyteller replied, “in a temple forgotten by the ages.” Muirne’s head tilted in recognition. Yes, she had heard of such a place, or really the expeditions of explorers who had gone looking for knowledge or treasure, and had never come back. “Thank you,” she nodded, “I shall begin my preparations immediately.” She turned to leave the now silent hall, but her father stopped her. "Muirne, my dearest," he began, “you can’t just—” “Father, you know as well as I that this is the way it has to be,” she smiled sadly. “No, I should be the one to go,” Eimheer finally found her courage, standing as well. But Muirne just shook her head. “Don’t be silly,” she intoned. “You’re the heir to the throne, you can’t just go gallivanting off on grand quests. And Ròs, I don’t mean to be cruel, but you wouldn’t survive a day out there.” “More like an hour,” she nodded hastily in agreement. “So if a princess of Atlantis is supposed to seal this evil, and neither Ròs nor Eimheer are able to do it, then that leaves only me.” Her father glanced downwards, his eyes clouded over. “Of course you are right, my child.” He sighed, and put a large hand on her shoulder. “I give my blessing for your quest.” “Thank you, father,” she curtsied, then turned to the room at large. “I shall leave on the morrow without delay.” She practically scrambled from the room, leaving the storyteller and her father to their separate miseries, in an attempt to avoid the cheers of the court. Only now that it was all settled did she begin to feel some modicum of fear. A long, dangerous journey awaited her, one that she may never return from. But she was the only one who could do it. Quite without meaning to, Muirne soon found herself climbing the western tower to her chambers. The first thing to do was to get out of these silly clothes and think of a plan. Having plans always calmed her. She could work through this, she could think of something. She always did. But before she reached the top of the tower, and her room, she paused at the other door. It was small, and unassuming, and most people just passed by it without a second thought. Muirne already knew what awaited her behind that door, but she still approached it anyway, grasping the handle and pulling, seemingly in slow motion. The room beyond was dark, and dusty, and Muirne coughed as her lungs caught the stale air. It was a bedchamber, one that looked as if it hadn’t been used in a long time. The carpets and the bed were old and moth-eaten, the canopy drooping pathetically on its frame. But the room was not unoccupied. “Hello, Ceallach.” Muirne’s voice came out small. The young, blond-haired thing sitting stock-straight at the end of the bed with a vacant stare was not her brother, but she couldn’t help calling it that anyway. Its gaze shifted to her, but it didn’t say anything, just tilted its head to the side a little by way of greeting. It couldn’t talk. Of course, some automatons did, but even thought this one had some of the finest clockwork ever constructed, it had never uttered a single sound. If she wanted to, she could tell it to be her brother, and it would smile and wave at her just like he always had. It would do whatever you told it to. But although it had his skin and hair and eyes, although in her mad grief it was her mother’s finest work, it would never be Ceallach. Muirne pulled a spindly, wooden chair up to the bed, and the two stared at each other for a long time. He used to seem so big and grown-up to her, a future king. Now this remnant simply looked like a lost child, even with its impassive, blank stare. But despite that, the automaton had always seemed sad to her, especially since her mother’s failure had caused her to take her own life. Though, with a blink, she shook herself. That was probably her imprinting her own feelings onto it. “Ceallach,” she said again. It made her heart hurt every time, but she couldn’t very well call it “automaton” or “it”. And that was the name it responded to anyway. “Ceallach, I have to go away for a while.” It tilted its head, and its eyebrows knitted together half an inch. Blast her mother’s inventing genius. Sometimes it looked so damnably real. “I’ll be back soon,” the words almost caught in her throat. “But... but if I’m not. If someone finds you, like father or Eimheer, or Ròs, you do what they tell you, alright?” A singular, decisive nod. With a sigh, she wrapped her arms around it. It may have not been her brother, but she had been the only one looking after it for years. It was hard not to get attached. The automaton didn’t respond, of course, just sat hard and unyielding beneath her embrace. After a minute, she stood to leave. But as she opened the door and glanced back one more time, Muirne couldn’t help but freeze in her tracks. It was doing something it had never done before: it waved. The movement was slow, and unnatural, but an undeniable wave. She hadn’t told him—it—to do that. As much as she told herself that it would just make things harder, Muirne did not sleep well that night. Countless thoughts circled through her mind: her quest, the automaton, just the simple idea of leaving everything she knew behind. But she had to do it. If she didn’t leave and seal, or destroy, or whatever it was she was supposed to do with this evil, it would just come and Muirne and everyone else she loved would die anyway. Eventually, she did manage to get a few hours of sleep, so she wasn’t a complete zombie by the next morning. Her father and sisters insisted on having one last meal with her before she left, but the breaking of fast that morning was a lot more somber and quiet than usual. It made Muirne’s chest constrict more than it already was. They all lingered a little longer than necessary after the plates of sweet cakes and eggs had been cleared away. But eventually, they couldn’t delay the inevitable any longer. Gripping her sword tightly, Murine stood, and her family followed her to the front steps of the palace. “Have you brought enough rations, and water?” Eimheer asked, hovering over her. “Yes,” Muirne spat, “Who are you, mother?” Eimheer’s face fell, and Muirne looked down. “Sorry,” she added. “Sister I... I brought you some nuts for your journey,” Eimheer said after a minute, reaching into her pocket for a small bag tied with a ribbon. “I know it’s not much, but I hope you’ll think of us when you eat them.” Muirne took them with a shuddering breath. She wouldn’t cry. “Thank you,” she managed. “Oh, are we giving the presents now?” Ròs asked. “In that case, I got you this lovely hand mirror.” She took out an ornately forged, silver-backed mirror with many jewels studding its surface. “So that even when you’re covered in mud and the gods know what else, you can always remain beautiful.” “Thanks?” Muirne didn’t see how that would help her, but she was grateful for the effort, anyway. Finally, her father stepped forward, and took Muirne by the hand. He placed something in it, round and hard. “This compass was given to my great-great grandfather by a storyteller, and it’s been passed down to the kings of Atlantis ever since. I think it’ll come in handy for you.” Now the floodgates truly broke. Muirne began to weep in earnest, and her sisters and even her father joined her. They all embraced and stood like that on the steps of the palace for the longest time. But if Muirne waited any longer, she would never be able to leave at all. “Thank you, all of you,” she whispered. “I’ll be back before you know it.” “Of course you will,” her father said. “You are a daughter of Atlantis.” And with his words ringing in her ears, Muirne D’Irn began her journey into the unknown. For the good of Atlantis, Lemuria, the world. Damn, that was going to make this stressful.

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