This is my latest contribution to my writer’s group, the Masked Dragon Society. My prompt is the above picture, and my goal here was to try and capture the feel of the older-style, classic fantasy stories.
The barons came for the princess last, for they were nothing if not men of tradition.
In Xalvador there had in fact been seventeen insurrections over the past eighty-four years, each of them started by a different spark but still driven by the same ambition. And so customs arose, even from the ashes of the old world that each new group of leaders strove to leave behind. Those chivalrous ideals clung to society like the withered ivy which climbed the castle walls, and remained just as pervasive and tenacious.
Of course Sadon, as the princess’s companion, knew very little about customs and traditions beyond that which the rod and the switch had taught her. But she did know the sound of feet on the servant’s stairs were far too heavy to be her brother’s, and far too quick to her master’s.
“Tis nothing,” said princess Catrain, not turning aside from her own reflection in the mirror over her vanity. Her skin was pale, and shone a babe’s pink against her shimmering blue gown. She was a girl of thirteen, with the mind of a woman of thirty and the tastes of a child of five. “Now,” she set her woven, gold-branch crown on her head, “do finish braiding my hair.”
The princess’s maid, Ellyn, took up those locks of golden hair and twirled them between her fingers. She was a stocky girl, skin kissed by the sun, with dark hair bundled up beneath her fitted servant’s cap. She was like a flash of lightning in a summer storm, the bite of spice in an otherwise bland meal; a girl of twelve, a servant by heritage and not by right. Her scowl was fixed on the door to the servant’s stair. “Tis something wrong, miss. I’m sure of that.”
Catrain huffed, then spun in her chair to eye her servant with a level of contempt worthy of a true queen’s daughter, not the offspring of the second most recent man to win the revolution. “You are here to braid my hair. Or, must I remind you how my father threw your father out the–“
The door burst open and Sadon scrambled to her feet, her claws slipping on the smooth stone floor. She left her place beside the heart behind as she shook the warmth of lethargy from her mangy brown fur. Into the room stomped one large man who smelled of fear and sweat, and he had his stubby sword drawn. Sadon growled, then sunk her teeth into his arm.
The man screamed, princess Catrain and Ellyn screamed, and Sadon snarled all the more as she relished the taste of blood. It was primal, perhaps, but the rush it sent to senses served to throw back years of apathetic domestication.
“Foul beast!” shrieked the man. “Unhand me! I am-”
Ellyn picked up the princess’s vanity chair and smashed the whole contraption over the man’s head. He staggered, his eyes rolled back, then he fell into a heap on the bedroom floor. His silken, indigo cloak swathed his bulky frame like the smog from a wildfire might ring mountain peaks.
“Ellyn!” exclaimed Catrain. “That is Duke Buffington, he–”
Sadon eyed her princess and growled, a sound low and commanding, one sure and true enough to settle the place of even this young pup. Catrain clutched at her sting of pearls and slunk behind her maid, suitably subdued. Ellyn came forward and took first the duke’s sword, and then his scabbard.
“Ellyn!” whispered Catrain, her voice harsh and strained. “What would the gods think of you robbing the dead? They will cast you in the lake of fire!”
Ellyn smiled, and her dark eyes flashed. “I’d rather face the gods than barons, miss.”
Sadon snorted, both in amusement and frustration. She liked this small one, this Ellyn — in her blood was the sent of wolf-friends — but of course that Duke was still alive. She stepped forward, eyeing the soft pulse which beat in his neck. Her ancestors knew what is was like to kill — even her father knew, from his days beyond the walls, his days in the forest, but all Sadon could remember was this life of stringent leisure.
“No!” Catrain smacked her on the rump. “Sadon! How could you?”
Sadon snarled, but didn’t turn to face her princess. The girl was her charge to protect, no matter how much she desired otherwise.
“Come, miss,” said Ellyn, then ran for the servant’s stairs.
Catrain hesitated, tugging at her hair. “Wait, what are you–”
Sadon nipped at the princess’s heels and the girl yelped, then followed after her maid. After a moment’s pause, Sadon trailed after them, her nose discerning the air, as they stepped into the dark, narrow staircase. She cursed the clatter human feet made on the rickety wood.
But so was her fate to live among humans.
Her father pledged the life debt to the princess’s father, and so were all those in her family line bound to guard the blood of that human. A noble place, for some. Although it had only lead to a swift end to her father, and the rest of her family — all sold and flitted away to the farthest corners of Xalvador. The kingdom’s dogs were small, with thin skins and blunted fangs, but not so were the wolves of the East.
Sadon came to a stop at the bottom of the stairs, barring her teeth. Death lay beyond them — she could smell the anguish, the suffering, the spilt blood and the scattered entrails. Unawares, Ellyn threw open the door.
Catrain screamed, reaching a pitch Sadon thought only she must be able to hear, while Ellyn wretched on the stairwell. Sadon bristled, but did not take a step farther. The human dead lay strewn across the foyer, their colorful insides staining the walls and floors of once pristine, white marble.
“Father?” asked Catrain, her voice weak, and she staggered towards one of the gnarled corpses.
“So,” thought Sadon, her ears perked. “The life debt has been paid.”
“Miss!” shouted Ellyn, and once more took hold of her princess’s hand.
Voices echoed from farther down the hallway, and Sadon snarled. They were men, and all of them walked at the call of that Lord Davenport — the hawk-eyed one, the one who reeked of cowardice, envy, and money. Sadon nudged Ellyn’s arm, then pushed the girl towards her own back.
“Aye!” exclaimed the little maid, but Sadon stared into her face with her amber gaze and slowly the girl came to understand. “Come, miss,” said Ellyn, then pulled Catrain along with her as she climbed onto Sadon’s back.
“I…I…” mumbled Catrain as Ellyn took her into her arms. “…seven months….I was princess for seven months…”
Sadon howled, then lurched to a run across the foyer. The main doors hung loose on their hinges and she tore them down with her paws and charged across the wide, open courtyard to the forest. Ellyn kept her seat like a true-blooded wolf-rider, and she took to cradling Catrain against her chest to keep the princess from be left behind.
Sadon almost wished the girl would fall, she was no longer her charge after all. But Catrain was still only a pup, spoiled though she be, and there was one place Sadon knew that could teach maturity — the place from which the switches come.
Davenport’s men shouted in the distance, then Ellyn turned back and gasped.
“Oh!” sobbed Catrain. “The castle burns!”
Sadon caught a wiff of the foul smoke and stole a glance back. Indeed, the castle burned — ugly fire shot out of the tallest spires, and licked at even the old ivy — but Sadon did not feel her riders sadness. That castle was a sorry place, too large and too cold to over which shed a tear.
And then they reached the forest. Sadon drew in a deep breath and relished the scent of the moss on the trees, of the delicate white flowers, of the wet earth which she trampled beneath her paws. This was home. This was where she belonged.
“Sadon?” asked Ellyn, her voice hesitant and respectful, as she should be. “Where are we going?”
Of course Sadon did not answer, but even if she could have spoken in the fluttering human tongue she would not have replied. Still, she let out a low rumble from her throat. They were going somewhere they would all be safe — her most of all, but surely the humans would learn. Just as she learned to live among them.
The sky darkened, leaving the horizon a blazing red with the setting sun, and Sadon came to a loping stop in the dense center of the forest. The princess and the maid tumbled from her back to land in the wet moss, their once magnificent clothes now palled against the richness and colors of the earth. Ellyn climbed to her knees, but Catrain simply began to cry.
“I want to go home!”
“Home?” A deep voice flittered among the trees.
Ellyn drew her stolen sword, while Catrain squeaked, then became silent.
They stood at the foot of a great, mossy oak and Sadon stepped back to bow her head to the dirt. The oak shifted, at first swaying in the breeze, but slowly the branches shrunk and molded into arms and a smiling face rose from the rough bark.
“By the gods!” exclaimed Ellyn. “A tree spirit!”
The tree smiled. “Not a tree spirit, little daughter of man. The tree spirit. I am king of this forest.” Leaves rustled as he moved, and he spoke with the whispers of spring and the radiance of the summer sun. “Sadon! Rise, daughter of Adon! No sister of mine should bow to me. Why have you come?”
Sadon rose, then shook the weariness from her shoulders. “Brother, I seek to reclaim my citizenship.”
The tree straightened. “So, the life debt has been repaid. What do you offer in exchange?”
“These two,” said Sadon, and she looked back at the two human girls. “The one called Ellyn shall be trained as wolf-friend. The one called Catrain shall…serve. She shall be armor-bearer to Ellyn.”
The tree hummed, and his branches — the very ground at Sadon’s feet — shook in excitement. “What say you, Ellyn? Shall you be wolf-friend?”
The little maid sheathed her sword, then straightened her shoulders, her jaw set and her face alight with a ferocity which would have no place in the stature of a servant. “I think I would like that, sir. I would like that very much.”
“And you, Catrain? Will you be armor-bearer?”
The princess pulled herself to her feet. Burs were tangled in her long hair, and her eloquent dress was stained with mud at the knees. She turned her nose in the air. “I am a princess! My father is lord of Castle Lancashire-!”
“Hmmmm,” rumbled the tree, and Catrain jumped back in fear. “That Lancashire? The home that now burns? The place of barren stones that now drown in the blood of the slain?”
Catrain sniffled, then wiped her nose on her gold-rimmed sleeve. “I demand you send me home! I will not allow myself to be ruled by, by animals!”
The tree swayed gently in the breeze. “It seems to me, little princess, that you shall be ruled by animals either way.”