Gosh, I am SO behind. I got to 7k and suddenly got distracted. So now my goal is to write upwards of 10,000 words by… Friday. It’ll be fun.
When Rosalyn left her mother’s chambers, she found herself wandering aimlessly through the castle, so deep in her thoughts that she noticed not who passed her nor where her steps would take her next. Her heart contracted every time she thought of her mother’s announcement. What could she do? She had no power to keep the Queen from marrying unless she herself married first and forbade Lilith to take a husband.
But who could she marry? The foppish Prince of Semlick, who spent more time gazing at his own face in the mirror than he did speaking to her– and what words that did come from his mouth were unadulterated praise for himself? The aggressive King of Elwich, who saw war as the only way to solve any and all problems with other Kingdoms? The disgustingly soft Prince Edward, whose hands were smoother than hers, and who refused to even feed himself for fear of breaking a nail?
Her choices were not good. On all sides, the neighboring Kings and Princes fell far short of the high standards Rosalyn had built from the example of her father. They made good allies in times of need, though their loyalties might shift now that the King was dead, but none of them were high on her list of potential husbands. Then again, would she ever meet a man who could stand up to her father’s example?
Rosalyn rubbed her forehead and sighed. Her mind was buzzing with questions, giving her a splitting headache, and she felt as though she were lost. She wanted someone to tell her where she should start; what she could do to fix the situation, who she could go to that would save her from it. The Queen’s announcement had been far worse that Rosalyn had expected. Forcing Rosalyn into a marriage, she could have handled. But knowing that her mother’s marriage would most likely become fodder for war?
How was she supposed to bear this? She had only just lost her father, and now she had to worry about keeping war from ravaging the land. And the only way to stop it was to marry before her mother did.
At that moment, Rosalyn wanted to run away. She wanted to escape into the gardens and climb into her special tree as she had when she was small, to hide among the branches until it all went away, to have her father come and comfort her. But those days were over. She was too old to run away; too big to climb those trees… and her father was gone forever. There was nobody to come and comfort her, to wrap her in strong, warm arms and tell her everything would be okay. She had nothing but memories now.
A harsh sob escaped her, and she leaned against the wall for support from the wave of grief that threatened to push her down. Her cry echoed in the empty hallway, ghostly and startling, and she covered her mouth. Though she could feel the need to vent welling up inside of her, she also knew that she was no longer free to display her emotions. Even in the seemingly deserted hallway she knew there were eyes watching and ears listening, and she had to seem strong even if she was breaking inside.
So, she stood up straight, locked her grief deep inside, wiped her eyes, and decided that she should go for her usual morning ride. Perhaps seeing her out and about would reassure the people that all would be well even though their beloved King was dead. And perhaps the fresh, cold air would revive her from this mental fog of grief, and the unity she felt with her horse would reassure her and remind her of the companionship she still had, and the view of the kingdom would remind her that she still had reasons to be strong.
There was much bustle as she headed down towards the stables; from what she heard, the Queen was indeed gathering servants, group by group, to grill them on their allegiances. Already, a few of the lesser maids were tearfully leaving the service of the castle. Rosalyn made a mental note of who they were as she passed by rooms and saw servants leaving. Somehow, she would get the message to them that this dismissal would be temporary, and perhaps gain their allegiance.
She reached the stables in very little time, and was ordering a stable boy to saddle her horse when two men she did not recognize approached her. Both were in the attire of a castle guard, and one had a cautious hand on his sword.
“Milady,” the first bowed, as was proper, and blocked her path to the outer door. “I apologize, but we are under strict order that you are not to leave the castle.”
The second guard took the reins of her horse and gently led her back to her stall.
“Under whose authority?” Rosalyn asked, though she already knew it was her mother’s doing. Lilith worked quickly.
“The Queen, milady,” he answered, and put a leading hand on her elbow. “If you would allow us to escort you back into the castle…”
Rosalyn jerked her arm away and glared at him. “I will escort myself,” she snapped. Fury boiled up with her despair. How could she do anything from the confines of these walls?
Turning on her heel, Rosalyn marched back into the castle and to her mother’s chambers. She could hear lilting laughter within, which only infuriated her further. Not bothering to knock, she burst into the room and found her mother reclining on her couch as the King’s jester fed her chocolates.
“Daughter,” the Queen made no effort to excuse herself from her tryst. “I expected you might be back.”
Rosalyn gave the Jester a cold look that stopped his smirk and made him slink quietly away. “Am I to be locked in my room as well, mother?”
The Queen sent an annoyed glance after the Jester, who was now busying himself inspecting his attire in the mirror, as though he could not hear them. “Well, you must understand, Rosalyn. It’s for your own protection.”
“My own protection?” Rosalyn scoffed. “Or is it for yours?”
The Queen finally rose and leisurely came to Rosalyn. “You must understand; we cannot have you displaying your unfortunate disloyalty to the kingdom. It is a very delicate time, and we cannot have you breaking up the loyalties of the realm.”
Rosalyn stood still as the Queen reached out and gently caressed her cheek. “I am loyal to my father,” she said, “and I will not do anything to sully his name.”
Lilith smiled. “Yes,” she whispered. “I knew you would understand.”
Backing away, Rosalyn shook her head. “No, mother. You do not understand; I will do anything to keep my father’s name from being dishonored.” She cast a meaningful glance at her mother’s lover, who still hid at the far side of the room. “Anything.”
Finally, her mother’s loving and airy act broke, and Lilith snapped, “If you dare interfere with my plans, daughter, I will make your life a living misery. I mean to rule this kingdom, and I will not let your misguided sense of loyalty to a dead man ruin my plans!”
A pang hit Rosalyn’s heart, and she felt a great sadness for her father run through her. “Mother,” she asked softly, “didn’t you love him at all?”
Lilith raised an eyebrow. “Our marriage was arranged. I was fifteen, and your father was nearly thirty. How could you have expected me to love him? He was twice my age, and I barely knew him!”
Something about the fury in her mother’s eyes and the desperate sadness of that sentence broke Rosalyn’s anger, and she nodded slowly. Deep within her was the need every child had to know that her parents had loved each other, and it was being crushed by her mother’s spite. She turned and went to the door.
“You will stay in the castle, and you will not interfere with my plans,” her mother yelled after her.
And at that moment, Rosalyn had no will to disagree.
Tristan had thought that dragon-hunting would be the pinnacle and excitement of his life until today. For today, he was performing a task that was far more dangerous than simply taunting a fiery beast with his sword; today, he would be attempting to steal a dragon’s egg. And the red-haired woman expected him to live through this experience.
He felt his belly twist with anticipation as he wound his way through the caves, following the directions of his captor. She seemed fearless, edging past the rocks and skillfully hiding from one or two of the dragons that paced this den. They were deep beneath the witching mountains, where the dragons had burrowed to lay their eggs and raise their young. Bones were scattered everywhere, and Tristan wondered if his would be the next to adorn the black floor.
The red-haired woman turned to him, and motioned for him to come forward. When she pointed, he saw that they were nearly on top of a sleeping beast, whose tail was wrapped protectively around her egg. The egg glowed temptingly, and Tristan stared in wonder. He had never seen a dragon’s egg before, though he had heard of their beauty and magic. Indeed, this egg shimmered iridescently, reflecting the glow of the mushrooms above their heads and lighting up with its own mysterious light.
Faintly, Tristan could see the outline of a baby dragon in the egg. He looked at his captor and then back at the egg. It seemed cruel to steal the unborn beast from its mother, but he had no doubts that if he refused, the red-haired woman would simply awake the dragon and leave him there to die.
“Why do I have to do this?” he whispered, afraid his voice might wake the sleeping beast before them.
She smirked. “Well, I don’t want my scent all over the nest for the mother to follow.” She nudged him forward, and he held his breath.
“Thanks,” he muttered, and the dragon-mother shifted in her sleep. He froze. Please, he begged the gods, please don’t rouse her.
Following his captor’s precise instructions, he tiptoed up to the tail of the dragon-mother and ever-so-gently loosened her tail from around the egg. He had been reassured that the dragon’s skin was too thick to feel his movements, and her sleep would be too deep to awake from her dreams, but he was not so sure. She moved again in her sleep, and Tristan’s heart skipped a beat. He was a dead man, he knew it.
Swiftly now, he lifted the egg out of the mother’s protective circle and tried to hand it back to the red-haired woman. But just as he began to back up, one bright eye snapped open and glared at him, and he knew he was done for.
A deep rumble came from somewhere deep inside the mother. In a few seconds, she would roast him to a nice crisp, leaving nothing but his sword behind to say that the pile of ashes had once been once a brave, if very foolhardy, man. How was it that in the span of these two short days he had faced death twice? Idiocy?
He didn’t have time to consider his stupidity. Without thinking, he had already begun to jerk himself and the egg away from the mother dragon, and was stumbling backwards, trying desperately to keep the delicate egg safe as the enraged mother shoved herself up and let out a furious roar. It was a blind scramble for safety as he turned and ran towards the red-haired woman who was, unsurprisingly, standing with both feet planted wide, eyes flaming, face lit with excitement for the moment. In the second he saw her face, he knew she had to be absolutely insane.
And, though he was well away from the dragon’s rumble and quite sure he had miraculously escaped, he stopped and turned back. He had to watch her; to see if she would extract them both from this mess with as much power as she had displayed in saving him the day before.
She stood completely unfazed by the massive beast lumbering towards her with fire in its breath and claws sharper than a sword, her dress blowing in the heatwave of the dragon’s bellowing, her form miniscule before the dragon, and she laughed. This sound shocked him and further enraged the monster in the cave, and in one lethal burst, it engulfed her with flames. Tristan felt his heart skip a painful beat, and he stumbled backwards. His only thought was that without her, he was completely and utterly lost.
But something odd was happening; as the dragon blew flames at the red-haired woman, he could still see her form in the midst of the heat. Moving. Not writhing, but straightening and reaching towards the beast with clearly outlined fingers, and instead of the screams of pain he had expected, she was still laughing. Tristan stared, too dumbfounded at the sight to move. He knew witches were powerful, but this was far beyond anything he had ever heard or seen.
And as he stood staring, she turned to him, the flames extinguished themselves, and she yelled, “Run, you imbecile!”
The dragon seemed just as confused as Tristan, and it blinked at them for a moment before gearing up to blow another wall of flames. The red-haired woman ran past him and grabbed his arm, pulling him after her; her hands were so hot he could feel her fingers burning through his sleeve and singeing his arm. He ran with her, questions flying through his head, the darkness confusing his eyes after such a dazzling display.
Behind them, the dragon crashed into the narrowing walls of the caves and bellowed. Thankfully, Dragons were incredibly clumsy on land, especially in tight spaces, and they had enough of a lead on her that they would certainly get away unless another dragon was drawn to them and blocked their way.
No such thing happened. They burst out into daylight and Tristan was blinded by the brightness of the sun. Their horses stood, nervous but loyal, and the red-haired woman leapt onto hers without a word. He had no option but to follow her over the land, through the rocky hills, past the stone walls of many ruins and far away from the dragons’ mountains. They stopped only when it was clearly safe.
As the witch leading him dismounted her horse and led it to a stream nearby, Tristan stared at her.
“What was that?” he burst out.
She looked at him nonchalantly. “What?”
“You… you… you were on fire!” he sputtered. “And you’re not even burnt!”
“Yes,” she said calmly. “And?”
Had he not been holding a dragon’s egg in his arm, he would have tossed both hands up in the air. “Well if you can do that, why did you send me in to get the egg? I could have been killed!”
“Because I can only do it once.” She tossed her hair, and he saw the slightest burn at the edges of her bright red locks. “And then it takes a few hours– or days– to restore my power.”
He scowled. He did not want to care that her hair was burnt, nor that he could now see a tender pinkness on her neck and chin, and her hem was singed. “So I was what? Bait?”
She tilted her head, pinning him with her green eyes. “More or less.”
His feelings were hurt, and he did not want to admit it. “I see,” he said curtly. Her actions had led him to believe she wanted him for more than just a worm to wiggle in front of a hungry fish; his attraction to her– or the attraction he felt because of her spell– was pricking at his heart at her careless attitude.
“There, there.” She came to him and patted his leg. “I wouldn’t have let you be killed. Don’t you trust me?”
He raised an eyebrow. “How can I trust a woman whose name I do not even know?”
“I did just save you from two dragons,” she reminded him. “And you are utterly unscathed.” Walking back to her horse, she mounted, glanced at him, and smirked. “Well, your body is unscathed. Your pride, I see, was nicked.”
He said nothing. It was not in him to admit she was right. To be saved by a woman once was one thing, but to be led into a cave, forced to steal an egg, and saved by the same woman twice was another. It was becoming an unmanly habit to let himself be rescued by a tender slip of a woman with lively emerald eyes and skin he would die to caress.
She was looking at him in a way that made him wonder if she had just read his mind, and he quickly changed his train of thought.
“What is the egg for?” He held the object up and peered at the outline of the small dragon within the shimmering shell. It was approximately the size of his head.
She shrugged and urged her ride forward. “I wanted a dragon.”
“You… wanted a dragon…” he repeated, irritated again. For the sake of whimsy and desire, she had risked both of their lives in order to acquire a pet for herself?
“Well, yes,” she answered. “They are quite loyal if raised from birth. And they’re quite good for protection.”
Did she need protection? She had just faced a dragon’s full wrath and come out laughing. It struck him as odd that a woman who could smite one dragon one day and face another’s full fire the next would need very little protection from anything else in the world. He watched her as they rode leisurely back to the high tower that she called home, wondering. What was she afraid of?