"Where is the witch?" Prince Kaspar shouted, pointing the tip of his sword at Aurora, and giving her no time to reply before continuing: "where is the Princess cursed to sleep for a hundred years?"
Aurora stood, leaving her mother to clutch helplessly to the back of her skirts as she put herself in front of Brynhild. She meant to shield her mother should the Prince attack. Kaspar continued to hold his sword out, ready to strike. "We," Aurora began, although her voice was shaky, "are the only ones here."
"But this is the castle," Kaspar explained, "my men and I have quested for three long months in search of it. It was hidden, they say, by the witches spells."
"I know of no witch, Sire," Aurora began plaintively, "it is just my mother and I."
A handful of men followed their Prince into the great hall, waiting beside their leader for further instruction. Aurora recognized Dirk from her encounter in the woods, and there was also another man, much taller than both the Prince and Dirk with his sword held aloft. "My Liege," the strange man said, "what are your orders?"
"This maiden claims to be the only one here, Ranulf." Kaspar dropped the point of his sword until it was facing downward, although he still gripped it tightly in his hand. Aurora could see that the Prince was out of breath and his chest heaved up and down as he tried to catch his breath.
Ranulf eyed Aurora suspiciously, looking at her up and down, before doing the same to Brynhild. He did not look impressed with either of them. "We should search the rest of the castle," he explained to the Prince, "see if the Princess is hidden somewhere. The tower perhaps..."
"Yes," the Prince agreed. Kaspar gestured to Dirk who quickly obeyed his master's orders. He gathered a few more men from outside and Aurora could hear them make their way quickly into the gut of the castle.
"It's not safe!" Aurora protested."The roof could cave in."
Kaspar waved her off dismissively, but she noticed that he was staring at her, his gaze long and reflective, as though he were troubled and confused by her. She remembered him in the forest saying, "it is you," with the same startling clarity. His eyes searched hers, as though hoping to unlock a great secret.
He took a step closer to her until his face was near her face. "But you are not cursed?" His voice was a whisper; she knew it was meant only for her.
"No, Sire." She spoke in an equally hushed tone, mimicking him.
"And this," Kaspar gestured to Brynhild, "is your mother?"
Aurora nodded, and hoped that the Prince believed her. He still did not break his stare away from her.
"My Liege," Dirk came barreling back into the great hall, "there is nothing here, just empty rooms."
"I see…" Kaspar seemed resigned.
"Who are you?" Brynhild asked. Aurora could feel her mother clutching tightly to the back of her skirt.
"Milady," Kaspar said, addressing Brynhild was a formal bow, "I am Prince Kaspar of Manobriar. Grandson of Igor the Great."
Brynhild shrieked, wailing, "Of Manobriar, they are our sworn enemies. Aurora get away from him!"
Kaspar and his men frowned down at Brynhild. The Prince's look was so fierce that Aurora took a careful step away from him.
"My husband defeated your Igor the Great in battle," Brynhild went on. The men's cold reaction to her earlier words didn't stop her. "Your Igor the Great pleaded with my husband to spare his life. Pleaded and whimpered like a little girl."
"And who was your husband, Mistress?" Ranulf stepped forward, his shoulders hunched as though he intended to strike Brynhild, and Aurora moved forward to protect her as Kaspar stilled the other man with his hand on his forearm.
"King Frederick was my husband." She said, unashamed. Her tone spoke of authority over all the men in the room.
Ranulf scoffed at her, his mouth opening wide into wild fits of laughter as though she had told him a terrible funny joke.
"Mistress," Ranulf recovered himself from laughing as much as he could, though he still chucked under his breath, "if King Frederick was your husband than the mighty wolves of this realm have coupled with the soaring crows, for you are not the Queen of this land. A serving wench, perhaps, that is to say you may have been one long ago."
Brynhild was taken aback.
Ranulf noted her reaction, and continued more mercilessly, "And I'll wager, Mistress, that you are indeed the witch!" His hand pulled his sword from its sheath, and a terrible slicing sound filled the great hall. Aurora brought her arms up protectively over her face.
"Enough!" Prince Kaspar shouted, immediately checking his comrade's behavior.
"She is the witch Liege," Ranulf argued, "this maiden may not be the Princess you seek, but I feel it in my bones that she," the sword tip pointed at Brynhild, "is the witch!" Ranulf moved Aurora aside before she could protest, pushing her awkwardly forward, causing her to lose her balance. She flailed her arms trying to catch herself but Kaspar reached out for her and caught her soundly with his arms. Once Ranulf was close enough to Brynhild he tore the muslin cover from her scalp, revealing the thin line of hair left on her head. It was grey and white but a few streaks of the youthful raven hair remained. "Dark hair," Ranulf accused, "just as my mother said."
"Your mother?" Aurora questioned to the Prince, but his eyes were carefully watching Ranulf, even as his large hands still clutched Aurora's arms to steady her. He held her in a strange crouch so that she was forced to lean her weight against him.
"My mother," Ranulf hissed, his spittle flying into Brynhild's frightened face, "was the Lady Lisbet Guerin. My grandfather was the warrior Varick Guerin who fought and defended this land with your—" he spoke the next word bitterly, "—husband, King Frederick."
"It cannot be…." Brynhild was stunned; her face turned ashen and grave. Ranulf's sword was still pointed menacingly toward her. Aurora squirmed away from the Prince's grasp and went to her mother, hoping that the evil stranger would take pity on them.
"That is enough cousin," the Prince said slowly. "Maiden," Kaspar turned toward Aurora who was still kneeling next to her mother. She was watching Ranulf back away slowly. "It is late, please forgive the gruffness of the Duke of Anhalt's character. We have traveled long and hard on our journey, and the hour is, as I have said, very late." Aurora hadn't noticed before how dark the hall had become, she could barely see Dirk and the other men hovering near the doorway. "Dirk," Kaspar said absentmindedly, suddenly remembering that he was there as well. "Tell the men to set up camp, get the fires going, and prepare the meal."
"Yes my Prince." Aurora could hear the hustle of feet against the stones and the chorus of orders being issued. She could hear large groups of men moving about in the courtyard. She wondered how many men the Prince had brought with him.
"Maiden—" he stopped himself, "may I call you Lady Aurora?" Aurora indicated that he could. "May my men and I beg your hospitality on this night? As I said the hour is late and we have journeyed long and hard."
Aurora looked to her mother, but Brynhild was still too shaken to speak. "Yes," Aurora said finally, hoping she had made the right decision. She indicated with her hand that the Prince should make himself comfortable.
"Will you walk with me?" Kaspar asked her, "I have many questions," the same baffled look that he had shown her in the forest crossed his face again. "I pray that you can shed some light on this situation for me."
Aurora followed him out into the courtyard where she got her first view of his immense army. There were more men than she had ever seen in her entire life. She could see dozens moving near the castle, and still dozens more moving in the darkness beyond her that she couldn't see. There were groups of four of five men each setting up tents in the open field.
"I fear," Kaspar began, "that I have not made a very good first impression. Please forgive me?"
Aurora stayed tight-lipped, but she nodded her head.
"Did any of the names mentioned mean anything to you? The name Lisbet, or Varick Guerin perhaps? Or King Frederick?"
"King Frederick was my father," Aurora revealed, "but as for the others I have never heard them before."
"I see," Kaspar said sadly. "Lady, may I ask how old you are? That is, how many summers you have…"
"I am sixteen," she said proudly. Her statement perplexed him but he said no more.
As they walked Aurora noticed that Ranulf was watching her keenly. His eyes followed them as they moved about the camp. His gaze was attuned to her as though she were a predator ready to strike.
Kaspar noticed how Ranulf had caught her attention. "Let me again apologize for my cousin's behavior, he—"
She cut him off, "—your cousin?"
"Yes," Kaspar told her, "Ranulf is the Duke of Anhalt, and he is also my cousin. He is the only living son of Lisbet Guerin."
"Who is Lisbet Guerin?" The way Kaspar and Ranulf spoke of her she seemed like a deity in Aurora's mind.
Kaspar hesitated before beginning, "she was the daughter of Varick Guerin, as you know, he was a great warrior under King Frederick, and under the King's father as well. He died during the plague and his daughters, Lisbet being the elder of the two, fled this place and sought sanctuary in my grandfather's kingdom."
"Plague?" Aurora asked him.
Kaspar was amazed at how little she knew. "The plague that killed all of the people of this place. The King and Queen included. When Lisbet reached Manorbriar she claimed that a witch had killed them all, and cursed the little Princess, trapping her here."
"Cursed to sleep?" She remembered what he had said in the forest.
"That is what some people believe, yes."
They walked on in silence after that. Aurora turned every so often to see Ranulf's eyes still following her. She noticed now that there was a woman standing beside him near the entryway of the castle. The crisp white sleeves of her bodice caught the light from the torches.
"Who is that?" She asked the Prince, pointing to the woman.
"That is," Kaspar cleared his throat awkwardly, "Senora, she is a companion of the Duke of Anhalt."
"Is she his wife?"
Kaspar chuckled under his breath uncomfortably, "no," he answered her, "she is not his wife."
Aurora watched as Senora encircled her arms around the Duke's waist, and kissed him lightly on the cheek. Backing away from him she looked back at Aurora, giving her a playful smile.
"Can I ask you something?" Aurora turned back to the Prince, trying to ignore the stares of Ranulf and Senora.
"Of course," Kaspar offered.
"In the forest you said, 'it is you' what did you mean by that?"
"Here," he said, pulling a long chain out from under his armor, a small silver locket dangled from one end. Kaspar opened it and revealed a tiny miniature portrait painted on the inside. Aurora squinted in the darkness to make out the face, but she could see even in the gloom that the woman inside the locket bore a striking resemblance to her. "You do see it too?" He wondered.
"Who is she?"
"Aurorette, the old Queen. The people called her the 'beloved lady' she is the mother of the cursed Princess. Your mother, I thought."
"My mother?" Aurora's mouth went dry. The woman in the portrait had long golden hair that fell down far past her shoulders and into her lap. Aurora had long hair like the woman in the portrait but it was copper colored. Aurora sighed, "and this is why you came here?" she handed the locket back to Kaspar who lifted it back under his armor. "To rescue her?"
"And to kill the witch."
"Witch," Aurora moved the word around in her mouth, it felt sullen and strange.
"When I was a boy," Kaspar told her, "my nursemaid would sing me to sleep with tales about the cursed little Princess. When I was a boy I used to dream about finding you, dream of taking you back with me."
"Taking me back with you?"
"I came to take you as my wife."
Kaspar took both of her hands in his own, "it must be true," he resolved, meaning the legend, "even if not all of it is as the people believe… You are a Princess; your resemblance to Queen Aurorette alone confirms that. You have her face exactly," he let go of one of her hands and moved his fingers along her jaw bone, mapping the contours of it. "You are royalty, as I am, let us come together as one. Let me bring you back with me, I will take care of you. What life can you lead here?" He gestured to the castle, and with new eyes Aurora noticed the crumbling stones, the tower that had begun to list, and the blackened soot straining where the chimneys shot upward against the pale stone.
"My mother," Aurora said slowly, "is not a witch."
Kaspar furrowed his eyebrows, although he was convinced that the old woman was not a danger to either he or his men he was still uncertain of her story. He viewed her as a crazy old hag who had long ago lost her grip on reality. "Yes," he agreed formally, unwilling to commit more.
"I cannot leave my mother," Aurora pressed, stunning herself that she was entertaining the idea of living with this strange man. He had taken up her other hand again and pressed his fingers until they interlocked with hers. She liked the feeling of his touch. "My mother is sick," she continued, "I cannot leave her."
Kaspar sighed, "then she may come. I will have my personal physicians see to her when we reach Manorbriar. Will you come with me?" He waited patiently for her response.
"Yes," Aurora finally said, "I will go with you."