This story is by Monique Legaspi and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Two children, girls, at odds and unafraid,
Shall learn firsthand: the Crown’s most sacred blade
Draws blood from one, obeys the other’s word.
A maiden’s hand, by maiden’s hand, falls still—
Her sacrifice made not by force, but will—
And this shall quell the rivalry incurred.
Victoria knows the prophecy by heart. The Eldest bestowed it upon her as an infant, chanted it into her crib in her ancient, rasping voice. Father reminds her every morning over breakfast, pairs it with a steely glare that urges her to bring honor to the clan. And Mother sings it to her every night, lullabies a curse in major key, a sugar-coated promise to kill or be killed.
The clan has been grooming Victoria for the throne for as long as she can remember. She trains, fights, reads and strategizes. But the burden of being an heir with a hit list never fails to weigh her down. A queen who spills innocent blood is a tyrant, she thinks, but it is the only way her clan can survive.
At combat practice, Victoria picks up a dagger, looks at herself in its silver teeth. Her reflection is harsh and jagged. For a moment, she feels sick, and her hand shakes, making her grip weak. She forces herself to breathe before sinking her blade into the belly of a sandbag.
She has time to change, Father insists. So long as the Queen is young, the prophecy is far away.
The Queen is dead, and Elizabeth killed her.
Victoria receives the news early in the morning. A diplomatic visit gone awry, Father explains over coffee. But all of them know the dark and bitter truth: the rival clan has been getting impatient, and their own prophetic child finally decided to set things in motion.
The Eldest summons the two girls to the edge of the kingdom, where the cobblestone roads meet the forest. “The Queen’s sword is hidden deep in the brush, somewhere only she knew,” she tells them. “Whether or not you are prepared, you must find it now, lest the kingdom fall into leaderless chaos.”
Victoria eyes Elizabeth warily. She is tall, golden-skinned, and dangerous. Among the many things Victoria has been conditioned to do, hating the rival clan’s daughter is the most ingrained in her. “She should be arrested,” she says.
“A criminal heir is still an heir,” the Eldest responds, somewhat reluctantly. “Both of you are necessary to this undertaking.”
Elizabeth drags a hand through wild, raven-dark hair and sighs. “Can I just kill her now?” she complains, and Victoria’s blue eyes go wide with fear.
The Eldest frowns. “You know the prophecy well enough by now. If—when—one of you is to die, it shall be by choice, and by the Queen’s blade.”
Elizabeth exhales in tentative concession. The Eldest hands each of them a shawl, a canteen, and a knife. “Keep each other safe,” she says.
Victoria clutches the knife close to her heart, already feeling her arms go weak. Elizabeth twirls her own between her fingers. “We’ll see what happens.”
Three days into the forest, Elizabeth has already had to save Victoria from a bear, a wolf, and an overzealous owl. Each time, Victoria found herself paralyzed, gripping her knife but unable to aim it at the animal. They were, like her, afraid and only trying to survive; she found it unjust that she had to hurt them in order to preserve herself.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, cut each one down without a second thought. She plunged steel deep into their flesh and turned an ear away from their screams, wiping the blood clean from her weapon with the corner of her shawl as they escaped.
Victoria walks with her, two hurried steps to every one of hers, and asks, “How do you do that?”
Elizabeth keeps her eyes straight ahead. “When you fight to survive, every choice is a difficult one,” she says. “‘Kill or be killed.’ It’s not just a prophecy, it’s life. Even the smallest bee must decide when to sting.”
Victoria frowns. “Surely there must be another option.”
Elizabeth shakes her head. “There never is.”
On the fifth night, when they decide to make camp, Victoria stays by the fire and threads flowers through each other’s stems. Elizabeth, surprised, sits down next to her to watch. “Flower crowns?” she asks. “I thought only schoolchildren did that.”
“It calms me down,” Victoria explains, twisting together the stems of two daisies. “A peaceful act to counter all the… violence, of training.”
Elizabeth raises an eyebrow. “How do you find the time for this? All I can do at the end of the day is sleep.”
Victoria laughs. “When you care about something enough,” she says, reaching up to place the crown on Elizabeth’s head, “you find a way to keep it with you.”
In the afternoon of the eighth day, the girls happen upon a small patch of berry bushes. They take a break there to eat, Victoria especially overjoyed that they can feast on something Elizabeth didn’t kill.
Victoria picks the berries delicately from the bush, popping them into her mouth one by one. Suddenly, though, she feels a slap on the side of her head, followed by something wet and pulpy sliding down her face.
The resulting scream is met with Elizabeth’s shrieking laughter. Victoria turns to scowl at her, all her training urging her to do so, but before she can, she sees the way Elizabeth’s nose scrunches up as she cackles. The way her mouth is painted pink from all the berries she’s eaten. The way her hair falls over her face as she throws her head back and howls.
Her hair, which should rightfully be soaked in berry juice.
Victoria rebuts by grabbing a handful of berries and running after her. Elizabeth squeals, and they chase each other around the bushes, giggling and crushing berries into each other’s hair, their hands smeared a deep, rich red.
On the tenth day, they spend hours combing through the brush, but it doesn’t seem so long when they start telling each other stories and jokes to fill the silence. The air between them is comfortable now, not at all unpleasant like it was that first day.
Elizabeth suddenly calls for Victoria. Miles away from the kingdom, she spots a glint in the dirt next to an ordinary oak tree. She claws away at the earth until the Queen’s sword is revealed.
Victoria’s eyes go wide. “You… found it,” she says.
“I found it,” Elizabeth agrees, looking blankly at the sword. Its blade is clean, despite spending years underground, with runes intricately etched into the flat.
Neither of them says anything, for they both know what has to come next.
Silently, Elizabeth picks up the sword. It looks natural, fluid; the weight is perfect in her hand, almost as if it were an extension of her arm.
Victoria saw this coming. She knew she wouldn’t be strong enough to take Elizabeth’s life, so that only leaves one other option.
Elizabeth raises the sword, both hands gripping the hilt.
Victoria squeezes her eyes shut and kneels before Elizabeth. She steels herself, waiting for the inevitable blow.
She hears a dull thump. When she opens her eyes, she finds the sword on the ground, Elizabeth frozen in place.
“I can’t–” She swallows. “I can’t do it.” She looks down at Victoria, helpless.
Victoria slowly, quietly, reaches for the sword and picks it up, moving to stand.
“A maiden’s hand, by maiden’s hand, falls still,” Elizabeth recites. “One of us has to die. I don’t want that, but I can’t think of any other way.”
Victoria scours her mind for an answer. She looks down at her hands, at the blade that has cursed them to this dilemma. She watches her mirror image, searches for any hint of doubt, and finds none.
“I can,” she finally says. She takes the sword in her left hand, inhales deeply, and brings its edge down on her right wrist.
The runes on the blade, drenched in her own blood, begin to glow.
And Victoria’s world goes dark.
She awakens, days later, in a bed much nicer than her own. The first thing she sees is Elizabeth, sleeping in a chair next to her and snoring softly. The second is her wrist, bandaged down to a stump and aching dully.
Victoria shakes Elizabeth’s shoulder, causing her to wake with a start. “Good morning, Your Majesty,” Victoria snickers.
Elizabeth yawns. “No thanks to you.”
“If I was the one who drew blood,” Victoria asks, “why am I in the palace, too?”
“I thought I might need an advisor.” Elizabeth looks out the window. “You’re very good at coming up with… unique ideas.”
Victoria grins. “Are you sure that’s the only reason?”
“Well…” Elizabeth thinks for a moment, then turns back to Victoria, smiling warmly. “I suppose, when you care about someone enough,” she adds, “you find a way to keep them with you.”