The cottage was empty.
'Where is she? Where have you taken her?' I screamed at the walls, the roof, the trees outside, the earth. If Swallow was right - that Mother had the craftiness to engage elves to work for her...But of course, she was the one who started the interspecies marriage...I thought bitterly.
'Your Highness!' I felt a hand grab my arm. 'Please, calm down!' It was Ryn.
'Ryn, how can I be calm? We must find her. Please! Do you know what Mother did to her?' I tried to suppress my fear, but my voice came out high and edgy. I would shout at the very moment, but not at Ryn. No. 'We have to go back to the castle.'
'We need a plan,' Ryn said in a low voice.
'There is no time for one!' I turned to Swallow, who only looked calmly back at me. He raised a finger.
'No, don't you DARE cast that spell on me!' I shouted at him.
'Fre...' Before he finished his word, I had butted him, then ran into the bushes. I could hear Ryn's calls echoing. She would be at the castle. But which way is to the castle?
I could see nothing but trees - in front, behind, on my sides...
Above me, the leaves rustled, casting wild dancing shadows on the forest floor - Shadows! I would be near the edge of the forest, probably, that the canopy had thinned to allow some light to enter. I followed the shadows - or rather, lack thereof.
The path I took was, surprisingly clear of trees, branches barely touched me as I pushed on.
Then I saw it - the blue sky - as I sprinted by the last of the trees.
And then, suddenly, it was dark, and I was atop a mound, the castle was some distance away, glimmering softly in the moonlight, like a gem in velvet. The road that I had taken out of the castle, over a month ago snaked away from it and curled beneath my feet. I cursed.
I had been misled by the glamour of the forest, and walked further away than I thought I had, and it had even tricked me into believing that it was sunlight that broke through the crown of the forest. At the brighter side, I was, at the very least, no longer in the forest.
As I ran towards the castle, a sinister gray smoke rose up from the courtyard of the castle. It could have been just a bonfire, but my instincts told me otherwise. I hastened my pace as much I could. I wondered how long I had run - the road seemed to wind on forever - when I finally reach the open gates. Beyond it, a big fire, probably - the walls were glowing.
Curiously, there were no guards - soon I found myself in the said courtyard, lit up for a feast, but empty as it was at the gates.
'Welcome back,' Mother's voice echoed from the other end of the courtyard. She stood alone, her arms clasping demurely, a sinister smile marking her face. 'Or should I say, welcome home?'
'Your Majesty?' There was something odd, that I couldn't figure out.
'Don't just stay there, I'm sure you didn't run all the way, just to stand there like a statue?' She gestured for me to come closer, which I did so too gladly. In fact, I was striding towards her.
'Where is Princess Aurealis?' I demanded. It was a soft sound, lulling continuously.
'Ah, stop there.'
'What makes you think - ' From a moment, half of my right foot felt emptiness. A pit opened before me, and I would have nearly fallen in, but in some twist of fate, I had fallen on my side instead. The pit covered most of the courtyard. 'You...'
'Are you now disrespectful towards your Mother? Will?' Mother was red-faced.
'Your new pretty looks made you bolder? Braver?' She screamed. 'I know everything, Will. Everything. And I suggest you think before you act, lest your lovely sister-in-law comes to harm.'
'Where is she? If you've done anything to her...'
Mother gestured, and the darkness behind her spit out a bound figure. Aurealis sprawled on the ground. Easily, Mother picked her up, and held her over the edge of the pit.
'You'll hurt her baby!' I shouted desperately.
'Oh, if she does fall, her baby getting hurt will be the last thing you'll worry about,' Mother licked her lips. I stared at the pit. Hundreds of snakes were in the pit, slithering over each other, their shiny bodies gleaming in the light of the torches. Hissing. Horrified, I scrabbled to my feet.
'Don't...don't do it! She's- She's your daughter-in-law!'
'TELL ME!' Mother snarled. 'What is this rebellion that your little brain is thinking up of? And maybe, I'll consider putting her down.'
'I'm not involved in any!' I shouted back. 'Please let her go...' I pleaded. Mother was smirking at me, and shook Aurealis menacingly.
'I'm not too kind towards traitors, and you should know it.'
'I-I-' I couldn't say anything about the rebellion. Whether I was bespelled or something else - I didn't know which. 'The princess has nothing to do with this!'
'Because I'm the one who started this!' Shouted a voice behind me. I snapped to the voice.
Ryn stood behind me, her eyes on Mother. I would call her, but I bit down my tongue. It would do Ryn nothing good if Mother knew that I knew her. Probably.
When I looked back, Mother was glaring at Ryn, her face slowly turning red. 'Guards!' She bellowed.
Before I could move, we were already surrounded.
'Throw them all in!'
I found myself hurtling forward. So this is it, I thought.
But instead of meeting the snakes, I felt a hand grasp my arm tightly.
'Hold on, Your Highness,' said a gruff voice. A moment later, I was on the ground, my face in the sand, gasping for breath. There were clashing of swords nearby, and when I turned over, I could see an all-too-familiar hulking figure some distant away fighting off the soldiers. Around me, there were soldiers pitting against soldiers.
'Ryn!' I called out. I could not see her in the confusion. Everything was a vast blur to me, it was only that hole in the ground that was clear, and the hissing of the dangerous snakes drew out goosebumps.
Somehow, amidst the din, I could hear a voice calling out, 'Phil! Phil!' and then, 'To me, soldiers!'. Across the pit, Aurealis was struggling with Mother – or someone. There were more than two figures, I could hardly see, but I forced myself around the pit, dodging the soldiers as they attacked anything that was not of their own colours. Miraculously, I made it near enough that I saw that it was a male figure that was struggling with Mother, trying to tear Aurealis away from her grasp. Aurealis looked frightened, her eyes wide, and mouth open, as though to shout.
'Aurealis!' I screamed as the princess was thrown aside. Someone caught her gracefully and set her gently aside. However, Aurealis had found her voice, and she cried out loud as Mother pulled the figure off and swung him over the pit.
'Not him! Please!' She wailed. 'Phil!'
Mother froze. Her unoccupied hand seemed to tear his face – no, it was a mask, and her eyes widened. 'P-Phil,' she stuttered. 'You- you're back!' She dropped him to the ground.
'How could you,' I could hear his voice drifting amidst the din, hard and cold. Aurealis ran to him, clutching onto the front of his shirt, her shoulders shaking, as she sobbed. Phil stroked her hair gently and glared at Mother.
'It's not what you think!' Mother replied.
Phil was shakened up, but he reinforced his words. 'Oh? I don't think so. Mother, how could you do this? You really wanted to kill her, you were going to kill me. Did you kill Will too?! I'm...I'm through with you and this kingdom!'
Mother looked desperate. 'No, I- Phil, this is our kingdom. And yours. I'll give you the kingdom but... please, please stay. I'll change. I really will. I'll – I'll accept her as my daughter-in-law.' Phil shook his head at her and walked away, carrying the Princess in his arms.
'Phil! NO!' wailed Mother.
But Phil continued walking away, not heeding Mother. And then, in a split second, Mother was gone – she threw herself over the edge of the pit. Her voice rose and broke off at the crescendo as, I imagined, the snakes piled over her, seeking her flesh, and winding around her throat, strangling her life out.
I felt sick.
The troops stopped clashing when they heard the scream, but Phil barely glanced at the pit and walked passed me. I clasped his hand.
'Your Majesty!' I announced loudly.
'I do not know who you are, but, please, find someone else to be the Kingdom's ruler. I want nothing of it. I don't care if it goes to ruin. It causes me grieve to be here.'
'What are you talking about?' demanded a voice. I saw Mort striding across the courtyard. But before he reached me, Aurealis had dropped from Phil's arms and placed a hand on my shoulder.
'Do you not know? This is our brother, Will,' Aurealis whispered to Phil. 'He was the one who saved me, and our unborn child.'
Phil looked puzzled.
'He is Prince Will,' Mort merely pronounced. 'I carved him from his body -'
'And I put his soul into another,' rang Ryn's voice. She was leaning on Swallow, her face pallid. I let out a breath of relief when I saw that she wasn't hurt much. Swallow seemed to whisper something into her ear, and Ryn nodded. 'If you are not willing to be the kingdom's ruler, then at least recognise Prince Will. And so he will rule thereafter.'
'I just want to go away from here, I'd recognise anyone right now -' Phil started saying impatiently. Aurealis squeezed his arm and shook her head. Phil looked at her.
'But if Aurealis recognises you as the Will, then...' Phil's eyes were curiously bright.
Suddenly, he fell forward and embraced me, and I felt shock rising from my inner-self. I had thought he would walk away, but his arms were squeezing me strongly. 'Oh Will,' his voice came out hoarse. 'I thought you were gone. I saw it. Your body. It was -' Phil stopped, unable to voice the probably horrific scene that had laid before him. He turned to Mort, I could sense anger rising within him.
'Why -' He started, but I gripped his shoulder.
'Mother was going to kill me – they were helping me. I won't be standing here else wise.'
Phil cast a glare at the pit. 'Burn the pit!' He called out. 'I shall see to the ashes discarded somewhere so remote. And then we shall depart, Aurealis and I.'
'Where to?' I asked him. Around us, the soldiers clamoured to follow the new order.
'Aurealis' kingdom,' Phil replied. 'I will be near enough. Oh, dear brother...'
It was silent in the room – almost as though it was a world away from the clamouring that engulfed the castle outside. The castle's staff were all preparing to move – Phil had insisted on going back to Aurealis' kingdom, and nobody wanted to stay at the castle.
I stood by the window overseeing the courtyard. The pit was nearly filled up. Then, I closed my eyes, to breath in the tranquillity that so rarely came to me in my life. It was as though a burden had been lifted from my shoulders, and I felt as thought I could fly. Confusion, fear, envy – the feelings were all almost gone. Memories of how Phil tenderly held Aurealis crowded my mind. Perhaps not envy after all. I wondered how it felt to hold a loved one in one's arms.
There was a soft knock on the door, before it opened.
'Your Highness,' It was Ryn's voice that greeted me.
I opened my eyes and turned. She curtseyed.
Ryn hesitated, but then, with a determined look in her eyes, 'I just...wanted to know where...where you're going after this...'
I had no idea where I would be going, but I cast about the empty room – for a little while, my mind was distracted – before shrugging.
'Well, I have a little proposal then,' Swallow shimmered into view. Ryn glanced at her brother, not looking surprised at all. 'Come travelling with me.'
'What? To rescue more princesses?' I raised an eyebrow at him. Ignoring him, I turned to Ryn, 'Will you be going to the Princess' castle to serve her?'
'No, I'd...I'd be going back to the Elvish kingdom,' She replied, unhappiness starkly expressed in her voice.
'Oh, please don't tell me you're REALLY going to marry that pr-' Swallow started, but Ryn quickly nudged him and he stopped, rather reluctantly, as though he was on the verge of letting out a delicious secret.
'You're marrying?' I asked, surprised. 'To whom?'
'I – no, of course not.' Ryn was glaring at the bard.
'What?' Swallow asked indignantly. 'They had it fixed up all nice – good-looking chap too - and you had to go run away to here and get yourself involved in a coup -'
'Brother, do you want me to silence you?' She hissed.
They were tethering at the edge of another argument. Again. Hurriedly, I spoke the first words that came to my mind. 'If - ' the two siblings turned their heads to me. 'If I'm going travel with you, please do not ask me to save princesses ever again.'
'How about one or two?' Swallow asked, half-teasing.
'NO,' I replied firmly. Then I reached my hand out to Ryn. 'Ryn, come with us.'
Ryn looked confused before placing her hand in mine, 'Yes,' Ryn was blushing slightly.
As Swallow vanished, his chuckling faded away as well.