Beginning: Part 1: White As Snow
Lyall strode, as always, a few paces ahead of Gina. The late king’s advisor had attached himself to her ever since the raid on the palace, two weeks ago. The name ‘Dragonkeeper’ followed her everywhere now.
“Get those doors open,” he barked at the doormen ahead of them, waving his cane as he hobbled. It wasn’t a necessary order; the men were already opening the large, embossed double doors for her, but Lyall seemed to think it was important that she knew he was bossing people about on her behalf.
Gina followed Lyall into the chamber and took her seat at the head of the long oval table, tugging her gown into place. She still wasn’t used to the long skirts and heavy fabrics. Lyall took the seat on her right. The heads of the noble houses, who had all risen from their seats when she entered, now sat also.
it had been the same routine for the last fortnight. Every day, Gina would sit before the lords and ladies of the kingdom, attempting to pacify them while they bickered. Then, Lyall would take her to another chamber, where the heads of the villages would appeal to her for food or protection. Suddenly everyone had a problem which only the Dragonkeeper could fix.
“What news of the princess?” Lord Boden asked, as he did every day. Gina knew that Boden had been attempting to convince the king to let him marry Snow. Although, based on the contempt in his voice when he spoke her name, Gina doubted that his concern was really for the princess’s safety.
“Nothing yet,” Gina replied. “But don’t worry, I have my best man on it.”
“That was your answer yesterday. And the day before. Half the moon’s cycle has already passed, and we are no closer to finding her, or the people who did this.”
“Yes, well, these things take time, and–”
Lady Britta interrupted, “We have prisoners in the dungeons. I fail to understand why they have not been executed.”
“Well, let’s not get hasty–”
“Thunderfalls should be burned to the ground,” Lord Kristof added.
“Now, hang on–”
They all started talking at once. Several of the lords rose from their seats, as if height would add strength to their voices. Gina shrunk down in her chair. A loud smack drew silence and all eyes turned toward Lyall, who had thwacked his carved cane down on the tabletop.
“Let us not forget who saved us all on that night.” He eyed each of the nobles in turn. Some held his gaze, but many diverted their eyes to their laps. “I watched, with my own eyes, as this young woman faced a kingkiller, and sent him fleeing. I saw the dragon she keeps, and the fire she conjures from her fingertips. Our king, god rest him, has left us, and our princess is missing, but we are not lost. King Alaric, in his wisdom, has left us Gina Dragonkeeper, to protect and guide us. And you would all do well to remember that.” He stomped his cane on the floor for emphasis.
The remaining lords lowered their eyes and muttered concessions, however, Gina couldn’t help but feel the apologies were directed more at Lyall than herself. She rose from her seat, the others all copying her, and dismissed the gentry. Not waiting for further comments, Gina strode towards the door, Lyall scampering ahead with surprising energy for someone of his age. A hand caught Gina’s elbow and she turned to see Lady Britta.
“You may have a pretty new dress, and a vial of dragon’s breath, but you are no more than a servant. Do not expect the royal advisor to always be around to defend you.”
Gina pulled away without replying and hurried after Lyall.
“Everything all right, My Lady?”
Gina tried to make her face blank. “Everything’s fine. Let’s just go and see the town leaders.”
Unlike her meetings with the nobility, Gina enjoyed seeing the townsfolk. Many had been surprised, and even concerned, when Lyall first presented her to them, but when she started sending food by the carriageload into the towns, they had quickly warmed up to her. Martha had shown Gina just how much of the palace’s food was wasted each day. Now, instead of throwing it out, Gina had hired a number of young men from the villages to package up the extra and distribute it amongst the towns.
“Lady Gina,” a middle aged man hurried over to her as soon as she entered the meeting chamber. He was Varric of Brackenridge, one of her most avid supporters. Usually he came to her with a smile stretching into ruddy cheeks, a knitted woollen cap covering his balding head. Today he held his cap in his hands, wringing it out like a dishcloth.
“Varric, what’s wrong?” Gina paused on the way to her chair, turning to face him.
“A creature stalks the woods near Brackenridge. A bear, My Lady.”
“Ah, well, you’ve dealt with bears before, right?” She glanced to Lyall for reassurance.
“Not like this one, My Lady. It takes our livestock. We fear for the children.”
“Well, I guess I could send some men to–”
“You must send the dragon,” Varric interrupted. His words caught the attention of every other person in the room. The background chatter died and all attention focused on them.
“Uh, I uh. I can’t send the dragon to kill a bear. I mean, then there’d be a dragon roaming the country, which is worse, right?”
“But you are its master. Surely you can bend its will to your own, and imprison it again once Brackenridge is safe.”
“Furrowbrook has wolves,” a man called out. “If you’re releasing the dragon, get rid of the wolves.”
“And the blight,” one of the women shouted from the back. “Spare our crops this winter. Burn the disease with your fire.”
“Brackenridge first,” Varric bellowed over the clamouring. “The dragon comes to Brackenridge first.”
“Quiet!” Gina called. “No one is releasing the dragon. Trust me, it isn’t going to help.”
“So the dragon is only called on when it’s in service to the royal family, is it?” the woman asked.
“No, of course not.”
“Then where is it?” Varric turned to her.
“I’ve never seen it.”
“It’s, uh..it’s right–” Gina searched for her phone, before remembering it was still on her night stand. She found the lighter, tucked into a fold in her dress and quickly held it up. “Here, right here, see, I’ve still got it’s breath.”
“Yes, but what are you going to do with it?”
“We thought you were here to help us.”
“I am. I mean, I’m trying–.”
“Then use your magic.”
“This session is over!” Lyall stamped his cane. Instantly, guards moved out from the walls, ushering the villagers back towards the exit.
Gina turned and hurried out of the room. Lyall hobbled at full speed after her. Gina made it to her chambers, the doorman opening the way for her, without having to be asked. In the doorway, Gina paused and spun to face Lyall, who came to a sudden stop to avoid running into her.
“Thank you, Lyall. I would like to be alone.”
“But, My Lady–”
“That will be all.” She turned her back and the door closed, cutting Lyall off. Gina leaned her back against it, exhaling heavily.
The voice caused her to jump, but she recognised it, and her lips pulled into a smile, even before her eyes found him. Rolf rose from the armchair in the corner and joined her in the centre of the room.
“They want me to release the dragon. I mean, who wants a dragon set loose on the countryside? Are these people mad?”
“They have been shown magic. Can you blame them for hoping it will solve their problems?”
“But it’s not magic,” Gina exasperated, going over to the arm chairs and sinking into one. Leaning forwards, she rested her head in her hands. “I’m not a sorceress.”
“Aren’t you?” Rolf asked, taking the seat beside her. “You summon fire from your hands, and carry pictures that move and make sound.”
“I told you how the lighter works, it’s just a trick. Same goes for the phone, it’s an illusion.”
“And what of the music you summon from the air, as though a dozen invisible minstrels are in the room with you? Or how you can see things happening miles away. Or your metal carriage that growls and moves without horses.”
“Cameras and a portable sound system. I told you how these things work.”
“And yet it makes them no less wonderous. And then you tell me that in your world, these things are common. Perhaps you don’t know you’re a sorceress, because in your land, everyone is.”
Gina smiled, despite herself, and soon Rolf was joining in. He had developed a knack for cheering her up when her doubts got the better of her. Her smile faded and she turned away from him.
“Tomorrow, when I go out there, they’re going to want proof. Lyall’s word was good enough for a while, but he doesn’t have enough sway to keep them back forever.”
“Lyall knows what he’s doing.”
Gina snorted. “He’s toting me around the palace like a doll, telling everyone how powerful I am, because he knows that without an heir, the lords will go to war to decide who’ll be the next king. But he’s wrong, I can’t stop them.”
Rolf leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Yes you can, Gina. If anyone can, it’s you. These people need you.”
“They need Snow.” She pushed off from the chair, moving to the window. “How is she?”
“Not ready. I thought you would be watching.”
Gina ran her fingers over her tablet, where it rested on the windowsill. She shook her head. “The camera keeps failing. I need you take another panel out and connect it like the others.”
She picked up a Solergeni panel from the small collection that had followed her through in the car. The hand sized solar panels were Solergeni’s pride and joy; the thing Rob had hoped to market, and make himself rich. Able to be chained together, they provided a portable recharge pack, capable of powering any number of small devices. Gina had hesitated only briefly before tearing off the cellophane wrap. She figured her job was as good as gone, anyway. The panels now provided power her security cameras, placed around the palace, and a few in the woods near the Cutters’ home.
Gina handed the panel to Rolf, who took it in both hands, holding it silently, for a moment.
“You could come with me. We could put it up together.”
Gina shook her head. “I can’t. I have to stay.” She turned on the tablet and brought up the images from the palace cameras, cutting to a live feed of three of the lords, discussing her in bitter tones.
Rolf nodded and backed away. “I guess I’ll go then, My Lady Dragonkeeper.”
Gina turned, wanting to call him back and say she had changed her mind, but he was already gone.
* * *
Rolf rode into the clearing, swinging down from the saddle as Snow wandered out from the trees. She was dressed as a peasant, in a simple frock, with a knitted shawl over her shoulders and her hair pulled back in a ribbon. Jebb Cutter walked a few paces behind her, laden down with sacks and baskets filled with produce from the markets.
“Huntsman,” Snow announced, pausing and turning to face him. “What news do you bring me?”
Jebb came to a stop also, his load wobbling precariously. Rolf hurried forward and grabbed a sack and basket from him.
“You’ve been to the markets, then, Princess?”
“Yes,” she sniffed, folding her arms across her chest. “It was very dirty.”
“Come, now, Snow,” Jebb encouraged. “You enjoyed those sweets the baker gave you. And the doll the children made for you.”
Snow pulled a small wooden doll out of her shawl, with black wool for hair, and bright red painted lips. “I suppose,” she said with a shrug, refusing to look at either of them. Jebb gave Rolf a wink.
“You didn’t feel like helping to carry anything home, then?” Rolf asked.
“Don’t be silly.” Snow turned sharply and strode into the house.
Rolf followed Jebb in, laying his goods down on the table. John and Jeff were already at work in the kitchen. Without being told, Snow picked up a handful of potatoes and carried them to the sink in her apron, dumping them in to wash.
“You still haven’t given me my news, Huntsman,” she called back. “What of the false queen? Do the people still follow her?”
“I heard talk at the markets, that she gives the people leftover food.”
“Folks do like food, ya know?” Jeff added from the corner.
“There’s no sense in gifting scraps,” Snow retorted, waving the potato she held. “A better gift would be seeds and fertiliser.”
Rolf and John exchanged looks across the room.
“Well, perhaps, Princess, that’s what you should offer them?” Rolf said.
“I’m hardly in a position to offer anything from here,” she reminded him.
“For now, Princess.”
Snow did not reply, keeping her back to him, she continued to rub the dirt from the potatoes. Rolf nodded to the brothers and retreated to the clearing. Climbing the tree next to the house, he located the long-sight device and attached Gina’s panel, making sure it faced the light, like he had been told. He felt sure Gina would want to see this.
Continue: Part 6: Sharp As Spice