Beginning: Part 1: White As Snow
Gina eyed the rope, dangling over the balcony’s edge. After less than a minute outside, her fingers were already numb from the cold. She began to doubt whether Rolf’s plan was going to work. The huntsman himself had no such concerns. He swung a leg over the railing, gripping the rope with leather gloved hands. Gina was about to speak, when the orange flecks of torchlight caught her eye.
“Rolf,” she hissed, hoping her voice wouldn’t carry to whoever was below. He followed her gaze and saw the group also. Narrowing his eyes, he returned to the balcony.
The figures on the ground, lost to the pre-dawn shadows, but for the light of their torches, moved in swift, deliberate patterns. They spread out into a fan, moving to different locations around the base of the castle.
“Are they guards?” Gina asked through chattering teeth.
Rolf remained silent. Gina spotted an actual guard, distinguishable only for the swaying of his red cloak. He rounded the bend at the base of the castle and came to face one of the torchmen. There was a scuffle, a muffled grunt and a heavy thwack. Gina jumped back from the railing as the guard collapsed. The torchman dropped his flaming brand on the ground, and pulled out a rope. All along the castle wall, Gina saw the men doing the same thing. Ropes soared up into the air, their iron grappling hooks clattering onto the balconies and window ledges. Rolf’s hand closed around Gina’s arm and he dragged her back inside, just as an iron hook appeared over her balcony.
“Run,” he hissed in her ear. “Keep running.”
Gina turned, hitching up her long dress in one hand, as Rolf pulled her towards the door.
“There’s a guard,” she said, right as Rolf kicked the door open and charged through. She heard the guard cry out in surprise as she grabbed for the cloth pouch that held the contents of her apron.
The guard went for his sword, but Rolf was already upon him, too close for the cumbersome weapon to have any effect. Rolf swung at the guard, his fist striking the man in the stomach, causing him to buckle over. Before he could recover his breath, Rolf punched him in the face. The guard reeled back from the blow, his head smacking into the wall behind him. The inside guards wore no helmets, and his eyes rolled back briefly before he slumped onto the floor.
Gina stared with surprise at the unconscious guard, until a sound from behind caused her to jump around. A man heaved himself over the railing, tumbling onto the balcony. Rolf grabbed her wrist again and pulled her out into the hall. They raced through darkened corridors, with only the barest grey glow from the windows to light their way.
The sound of shouting and clanging metal came from up ahead. Rolf pulled Gina to the side, holding her against the wall, as a black-cloaked invader ran past, chased by two of the palace guards. None of them paid Gina or Rolf any attention, continuing their mad dash down the hall. Keeping a firm grip on her hand, Rolf kept moving.
“Who are they?” she managed to gasp, as he pulled her around another turn. More invaders appeared and they backtracked quickly.
“Thunderfalls. It’s a town in the woods. The King neglects them even moreso than Northwood. It would seem they have had enough.”
They sprinted around another corner, and ran into a small group. Rolf’s hand went to his knife, drawing it in a heartbeat, and raising it. Three women screamed and pulled away. Gina pulled back on Rolf’s arm and he lowered his weapon.
“It’s okay,” Gina called to the ladies. “We’re not attackers.” The women looked up, their eyes wide enough for the whites to be visible all around, even in the half light. Gina guessed they were servants, but clearly of a higher station than Martha and her girls. Ladies in waiting, she supposed.
“Come on,” Rolf led her past the women. Gina pulled him to a stop.
“We can’t just leave them.”
Rolf looked over the women. “This way, all of you, quickly.” He kept moving, the women trotting along in his wake.
More activity followed them. Gina saw more and more people, many still in their nightclothes, running back and forth. Guards pushed past them, chasing down anyone in a black cloak. The Thunderfalls invaders seemed endless. For every one that was captured or killed by the guards, another appeared to take his place. Soon, they were jumping over bodies, and dodging dark stains on the carpets. They reached a wing of the palace where the action seemed more concentrated. Shouts and screams filled the hallways, along with the clashing of steel.
Rolf turned back to the women following them. “What’s down there?”
“The king’s chambers,” the eldest of the three asked. Her hands went to her mouth. “They’re going to kill the royal family.”
“In here.” Rolf rammed a door open with this shoulder, and ushered them all into the room beyond. Another scream greeted them, and Gina turned to see an old man, huddled in the corner, hands over his head. She was about to go to him, but one of the ladies had already run to his side.
Rolf closed the door, leaning against it. Gina could hear footsteps outside as more men and guards ran past. Someone shouted, but the call was cut short.
“The princess?” a voice called. The voice was calm but stern. Gina was surprised at how normal it sounded. She had been expecting a roar.
“What? How can she be gone?”
“She wasn’t in her chambers. The bed was cold. She left before we got here.”
“Someone warned her.”
“Sir.” A third voice joined the mix, accompanied by approaching footsteps. “It’s done, sir. The king.”
One of the servant ladies cried out at his words. Her hands flew to her mouth to muffle the sound, but it was too late. The men outside went quiet.
“Who checked that room?” the man who appeared to be the leader asked. This time, his voice took on the growl Gina had been expecting.
As one, Gina, Rolf and the other women took a step back from the door. Gina’s already racing heart skipped a beat and her breath caught in her throat. There was nowhere to run. The room had only one door, and there wasn’t even a balcony to climb over. Her hand went to her bag. She reached inside, pulling out the familiar smooth slab of her cell phone. She began swiping through screens, but there was no app for fighting off men with swords.
She tapped an icon, just as the door flew open and three men charged in. Raising the phone, Gina called out in her most authoritative voice. “Stop!” Her voice was more high pitched than she had intended, but the unexpectedness of her command was enough to surprise the men, and cause them to halt.
Rolf also froze in place, his knife held at the ready. Gina kept her phone held out, with the screen facing them. On it, was a picture of a dragon, taken from a movie.
“Come any closer, and I release this dragon,” she said, hoping no else noticed the slight hitch at the end.
“That’s no more than a painting,” one of the men challenged.
Gina tapped the screen with her thumb and the clip played. The dragon stomped and roared, flapping its wings and swinging its tail. The men jumped back. One even ducked and covered his ears against its roars.
“I have him trapped,” Gina said, pausing the clip before the main character could run on screen and ruin the effect. “But I’ll let him out into the room, unless you leave.”
“Witchcraft,” the cowering one said, backing away.
“An illusion,” the leader said, but Gina could see he wasn’t convinced of his own words.
She pulled the lighter out of her bag, too. “It’s not just the dragon I hold. I also have his breath.” She flicked the lighter, sparking a flame above her thumb. “Now go, before I set them both on you.” She stepped forwards and the men balked. Turning on their heels, they sprinted back into the hallway, calling to their comrades to retreat.
Gina lowered her phone and the lighter, somewhat stunned that it had worked. She turned to Rolf to share in the disbelief. He looked at her curiously. Whilst it was clear that he didn’t know what exactly she had done, he knew better than to think she really had a dragon in her pocket.
“You saved us,” a voice came from the corner, and Gina turned to see the elderly man staring at her with awe. “Who are you?”
“His Majesty’s consort,” Rolf answered, shooting her a look that told her to play along. “Gina.”
“His Majesty, God rest him, was very wise to choose you, Gina Dragonkeeper. Come.” He got slowly to his feet, with the help of the other lady in waiting, and leaning heavily on her arm, made his way out into the hall.
“Yes, child, come. The king is dead, God rest him, and the princess missing, if those thugs are to be believed. The people will be afraid. But not if they know the powerful Dragonkeeper is protecting them.”
Gina turned to Rolf appealingly.
“You wanted to save the kingdom,” he said, only loud enough for her to hear. “Go.”
“They think I’m magic.”
“You’re as close to magic as I’ve ever seen. That man is the king’s advisor. Now go.”
“What about Snow? They were looking for her, too. What if someone finds her?”
“I’ll go back to the woods and warn the brothers.”
“Come, Dragonkeeper,” the old man called again. Gina turned away from Rolf with a last nod, and, hitching up her skirts, hurried after him.
* * *
Rolf rode through the forest as first-light touched the trees. Soon, the thudding of his horse’s hooves was joined by the calls of unseen birds, in the branches high above him. There was no snow under the cover of the trees to leave a trail, and he made good time, retracing his earlier route to the Cutter brothers’ cottage.
The seven brothers lived alone in the house their father had built. A house in which Rolf had taken refuge many times while out hunting, during the worst winters. Before the cottage even came into view, Rolf heard the high pitched shouting of a woman’s voice.
“I will not dirty my hands in this muck. Return me to the palace, at once.”
“Princess, you know we can’t do that.”
“If you think I’m going to live in this squalor, you’re as stupid as you are ugly.”
“It’s only squalor ‘cause you went around breaking things, innit? You make a mess, you gotta clean it up.”
“Get that thing away from me.”
“It’s only a broom, Princess. ‘Round here, we all do our share.”
“I will not! This is outrageous. My father will have your heads for this.”
“You father is dead,” Rolf called, riding into the small clearing in front of the cottage. Snow spun around to face him, skipping back a few steps.
“Come to finish the job, have you?” she said, arms folded and chin upturned. Even in anger, with her cheeks flushed and her mouth pressed thin, Rolf had to admit she was beautiful.
“What do you mean, dead?” John Cutter asked, stepping forward. He was several inches shorter than Snow, with a thick beard about his chin.
“The palace was attacked this morning. They came for the royal family.”
“My father?” Snow said, finally seeming to register that the conversation was no longer about her. “They killed him?”
“Aye, and they would have killed you. Best you stay here, Princess, where you’ll be safe.”
Her eyes narrowed and her fists balled. “I cannot stay here. How dare you take me from my home, and leave me here with these vagrants.”
“They’re not vagrants,” Rolf said, swinging down from his horse. “They’re honest working men. Your people. And they’re offering to help you, when others would see you dead.”
“Help me? They want me to work. If my father is indeed dead, then I am the rightful queen. You must return me to the Palace Keep immediately.You will all hang for your treachery.”
“The palace has already chosen a new queen,” Rolf said, acting on sudden inspiration. Snow drew back, blinking in surprise.
“Aye. They call her Dragonkeeper. A powerful sorceress, who has vowed to protect the land from a king, and a princess, who abandoned it.”
Snow drew herself up, indignation rolling off her in waves.
“No, but…I don’t understand. They wouldn’t–”
“You can still stay here with us, miss,” Jeff Cutter said. Snow looked at him with something that Rolf guessed wasn’t so much gratitude, as disgusted resignation. Stepping forward, he extended his hand with the broom. “But you still gotta clean up your mess.”
Snow shrieked in anger and stormed back inside the cottage, leaving Jeff holding the broom. The man chucked to himself.
“Maybe I should go teach her how it’s done, eh?” He swung the broom over his shoulder and followed her inside.
John turned to Rolf. “Is it true, about the sorceress?”
“No. At least, not entirely. But don’t tell her that. If she thinks she can go home, I’m afraid she’ll be foolish enough to try.”
John nodded his agreement. “That girl wouldn’t make it a mile alone in these woods. Don’t worry, Rolf,” he slapped the horse’s shoulder. “Between the seven of us, I’m sure we can keep an eye on her. And maybe teach her about appropriate behaviour.”
He laughed, and Rolf joined in. “You know, for a princess, you’d think she’d have better manners.” He placed a boot in his stirrup and climbed back into the saddle.
“Oh, no, the manners of the rich aren’t to be wasted on folks like us.”
“That’s exactly what I need you to change. And keep an eye out for Thunderfalls folk. I think they were behind the attack. I’d better get back to the palace, before the court start asking the Dragonkeeper for a demonstration.”
John nodded, backing away from the horse. He raised a hand in farewell, as Rolf turned, kicking his steed’s sides. The horse surged forwards, diving back into the forest, just as the sun crested the horizon, on the first clear day that winter.
Continue: Part 5: Wild As Fire