Prologue


"The girl shall belong to us…"

A dark figure stood by a large window, silhouetted by the rising moon. He tilted his head upwards to glance at the speaker. "But my lord, she is only a child."

The one that had spoken before stepped into the silver light. His hair was as white as the translucent orb shining high in the sky, his eyes a crisp blue, like frost. "I realize this, however, she shall become ours eventually…"

The white-haired man laid his hand on the other's shoulder, squeezing it so the other looked into his eyes.

"It is the prophecy," he intoned. "The others know of this, and you shall understand … in time."

And without a second glance, he released his hold and walked out of the room, gently closing the door behind him.

The lone man sighed in frustration. He rubbed his eyes, then turned his gaze out the window, sliding it over the expansive courtyard until it slid to a stop at another window two stories down. The light was on, so he could see shadows dancing on the other side of the curtain.

As he watched, a woman's silhouette glided across the pale cream of the drape. Oh, how he wished he could tell her of her fate, how he wanted her to welcome this end with peace and pleasure, not pain and sorrow. But no, she was not to know. Not yet…

~0~

On the other side of the courtyard, a small woman, around her late teens, tried to act calm while her servant hurriedly shoved clothing into her traveling satchel.

Just a few hours before, he had informed her of the watchman staring at her window, and of the horrible act to be done to her that was to commence tomorrow at dawn. What the maids he had overheard called "the Ceremony."

Remembering his description, she shuddered at the imagery her mind conjured.

This wasn't supposed to happen…

She thought of her mother and father, Lord and Lady Bartok, scrounging the surrounding towns for any extra food they could find, searching the winter-laden woods for any sign of wildlife.

How their storerooms echoed with emptiness, every crack dry as a bone. No one in their village had anything to eat.

So they had been desperate to find a way to feed their starving people. She remembered the day that the four strangers had come, offering food and new clothing in exchange for her presence at their castle for a month.

Of course she had readily accepted. It had been the right thing to do… hadn't it?

The sound of her servant calling to her snapped her out of her trance.

"Miss Natasha, are you alright?" His face was creased in worry and fear, but he kept them in check, a trait she found strangely endearing.

She smiled. "I'm fine, Horatio."

The worry lines only creased more. "Well, everything is packed. The guards should be changing positions soon, so we should be able to reach the gate quickly if we are quiet and swift."

He adjusted his brown traveling cloak around his neck. Natasha gripped the silver brooch on her own burgundy cowl tightly in her sweaty fist.

"Are the horses ready?" she whispered.

At Horatio's quick nod, she closed her eyes and steadied herself with a deep breath. When she opened them, they were filled with determination and courage, and another emotion Horatio knew well - the desire to survive.

"Alright. Let's go." She doused the candle flame with a flick of her hand, and they left in shadows, closing the door behind them without a sound.

~0~

When he saw the flame extinguished, the watcher had sighed in relief.

She'll be asleep soon, so there's no need to stay by the window anymore, he thought. He turned then, stretching to relieve the tension that had erupted in his lower back.

And missing the two shadows that darted across the courtyard and towards the stables.

~0~

The night air was cool and cut through their traveling cloaks like the finished blades of new swords. Natasha's breaths floated into the air as warm mist while she followed her servant, who had become like her brother, to the entrance of the stables.

At first she wasn't sure there was anyone waiting on them. The stables were dark and still, only the rustle of hay to break the silence.

Suddenly, a lone torch was lit from behind a stack of bags full of oats. Out stepped the elder groom, Blanchett. His wiry mustache twitched upwards in a fatherly smile as Natasha ran into his burly arms.

Horatio smiled at the overgrown man. "We thought you had forgotten about us, pops."

He laughed at the glare the older man shot his way. "Perhaps I should just tie you to the horse instead…" Natasha giggled, then sighed in remorse.

She removed herself from the older man's arms and looked at his weather-beaten face, tears of sorrow falling down her cheeks. "I wish you could come with us, grandfather." At the endearing term she used for the groom, Natasha burst into tears, covering her mouth to stifle her sobs.

Blanchett smiled and pet her head. " I know, my dear, but I will only slow you down." he glanced over her small head to where Horatio was saddling the horses.

He turned to look at the older man. Respect and paternal love shown on his face. "We'll both miss you, old timer."

Blanchett smiled and the two men shook hands in farewell. Natasha dried her tears and gave the old man one last kiss and hug.

"Please don't forget me," she whispered while he loaded bags of provisions onto their saddles.

Blanchett smiled down at the small brunette woman. "My dear child, I could never forget you."

He lifted her into the saddle, kissing her forehead as he did so. As Horatio was mounting his steed, the group heard a shout coming from the castle grounds that set their hearts to racing.

"THE LADY NATASHA IS GONE!"

~0~

Everything seemed to be on edge as the man made his way through the never-ending corridors. He had decided to check in on the house's guest, the Lady Natasha.

A small smile found its way to his lips as he imagined her tinkling laugh, the sunlight dancing through her dark hair, igniting it and setting it ablaze with ochre and amber tints, the way she could bring life to a room just by her mere presence…

His thoughts came to a complete halt when he rounded the corner of the hall to see the Lady's bedroom door ajar.

A small light was flickering inside, so he knew that someone had entered the room. Hand on the hilt of his sword, he inched closer to the doorway. He continued until he could hear frantic whispers flutter from the room.

"What will the masters say?"

"I don't know, but they will be awfully angry…"

"She was here not moments ago. I even helped her find her nightgown!"

The man tensed at this. Without thought, he stepped into the room to see three of the house's maids huddled in the middle of the room. As he entered, all of their faces contracted a look of both fear and apprehension.

His hand slid from the hilt of his blade as he simply asked, "Where is Lady Natasha?"

Three sets of eyes glanced at one another before the smallest of the three spoke up.

"We don't know, my lord… we came to check up on her, but we found her room empty. The candle was doused, even." She motioned to the small night table that sat near the window.

He followed her hand with his eyes, then looked upon the second tallest.

She fidgeted a little before she spoke. "I had come to help her with her nightgown. She had thought that she had lost it after her bath, and I had left to look for it. I came back to an empty room and these two," she nodded at the other two girls, "said that they had come to see if the Lady had need of assistance."

The man nodded, then looked to the tallest girl there. She was the one that held the small candle. Her hand began to shake. "I believe the Lady is…. gone.. Milord…"

The candle flame flickered and died as the man sped from the room, not waiting for the girl to finish. He had to find his brothers, and quickly. If the Lady left the castle grounds…. He shook his head at the thought.

He called out to whoever could hear, preparing to rally the guards.

"THE LADY NATASHA IS GONE!"

~0~

The shouts of the servants echoed throughout the courtyard. Natasha and Horatio glanced at one another, an unspoken question on their lips. Will we make it?

Blanchett dashed to the stable doors, hurriedly flinging them open. "You must go, now!"

Both riders nodded, quickly urging their mounts forward. They galloped through the lines of stalls and into the chilly evening.

Horatio pulled his steed back to cover Natasha, hopefully giving her time to escape if he was captured.

With a hard right turn, they streaked across the cobblestones, following the road that would lead them to the gates, and freedom.

Suddenly, the thunder of hoof beats echoed behind them. "Damn! They've dispatched the guards!" cried Horatio.

Natasha turned her head a fraction to sight their pursuers.

A line of night black stallions met her vision. Warriors decked in silver plated armor sat astride the majority of the steeds.

All but one.

A silvery white horse was positioned in the middle of the black volley. Its rider was as pale as death, with hair the color of moonlight and eyes like frozen skin. He wore no armor, only the silver clothing of nobility and a cloak of snowy owl feathers graced his person.

His gaze was fixated on her, never moving. It seemed to be almost…pleading. Begging her to stop, to turn around and return. It was hypnotizing…

She quickly turned away, shaking her head and setting her sights on the approaching gates. "We're almost there!" she encouraged. She could almost taste their freedom on her tongue.

A cry came from Horatio and he fell from his saddle. Natasha turned to see an arrow's shaft protruding from his shoulder. "No…"

He gave a hard cough, spitting up blood. Still gripping the reins of his horse, he was dragged several feet until Natasha helped him back into his saddle.

"Go," he gasped. "my task is finished. I can do no more for you."

The girl shook her head firmly. She couldn't leave him there. He was like her brother.

"We got into this together, and that's how we're going out."

She raised her head to see that they had been surrounded by the armored sentries. Natasha searched for a gap in the wall of men, but there was no escape…


"What happened next, Uncle?" inquired a young girl.

Her uncle chuckled and lifted the child into his lap. "They escaped, of course. Natasha used her quick wit and jumped their horses over the guards. The gate was simple enough to break through, and soon they were free."

He leaned back in his chair.

"And they lived happily ever after, right?"

The uncle blinked. "Well, yes…."

He heard a small huff.

"That's how they all end. The hero gets the girl, they defeat the bad guy, then ride off into the sunset."

She pushed out her bottom lip. "They're all the same. A happy ending is so predictable, it's boring."

The man stared at the young girl for a short time, before bursting into laughter.

"You've always been a strange child, Anya…"


Okay… I realize I've already edited this prologue twice… but I've received a review from a reader that gave some helpful advice about spacing out the dialogue and other hints. A gracious nod to Evelina Duile; thank you ever so much for your input. It is appreciated.