Chapter 1/part1

"You're cold," I murmur, a puff of vapor sprouting on my lips. I tuck the blanket snugly around her shoulders and wrap my arms around her waist. She doesn't seem to have heard me. Her distant gaze is fixed upon the dyeing fire pit. Her tight grimace and sudden trembling make my heart feel heavy, but I can't provide her any more comfort than my presence and the worn blanket we share.

I wish deep within my heart that I could dive into her thoughts and remove the fears now caving in upon her. It was bad enough when her imagination was the cause of her fear, how much worse it must be to know in the very depths of one's certainty that this time the monster is very real and very angry!

I'd do anything to destroy her recent memories and replace them with the much-needed pleasure her childhood was fond of, but I am helpless this time.

Even if I could provide her the warmth to melt away the cruel reality, who would do the same for me? I am in no better shape and just as weary.

There are no stars tonight, and the sky is black as coal. The tiny flame still blazing on our shriveled twig is our only source of heat and light and amusement. I can't feel my fingertips, and my insides squirm every once and again to remind me of my coldness.

Why did my mother have to die? She knew my father was a drunk and a brute. Why did she have to leave me and my sister with him? She knew I couldn't uphold the responsibility of caring for my father, my sister, and a kingdom all by myself.

I want to be angry with her. I want to scream, and yell, and throw a tantrum, but I can't. Deep inside, I still at fault…

My kingdom lies in ruins, fallen into the hands of rowdy invaders, my intoxicated father—who knows where he's at—most likely passed out somewhere, if not dead, and my sister and I are left—two princesses in a world overrun by monsters. For all I know, I may die tonight—freeze to death in the darkness once the last spark of our flame dwindles into nonexistence, but until my last breath, I will embrace my sister, protect her, and fill her head with optimistic lies—whatever she needs to hear to keep her alive and hopeful.

"Gwendolyn…" she whispers suddenly, awakening me from my thoughts. Her voice sounds so broken, feeble, and troubled, that hearing it causes my heart to cave in on itself, and a lump to form in my throat.

"Yes…" I murmur back solemnly, inwardly cursing my sensitivity and outwardly struggling to erect an apathetic front.

"Will we die tonight?" she whispers ever so quietly, glaring out into the distance, as if facing the scaffold with a willing air. Though her soft, cracked lips quiver, her eyes shine with more bravery than I've seen befit a warrior. What a child she is, yet how mature she's been these last few minutes. Tears flood my eyes, and they pour down my cheeks unrestraint, freezing on the edge of my chin.

Hugging her tighter, I whisper in her ear, my voice heavy with an emotion too boundless to put asunder, "I don't know, Taryn… I just don't know…"


I take first watch tonight, allowing Taryn to get some sleep. She's had a long day, and I know she's tired, even though she tries to hide it. She's strong-willed like Mother was, but she doesn't argue this time. Her head bobbing with fatigue, she lowers her body into my arms and lays her head on my shoulder like she used to when she was a baby, and I hold her as if she were my own.

When she's settled, I glance around protectively. To be safe is too great a wish—especially here in this alley. To tell the truth, I don't even think we are alone. Who knows what's lurking right around the dark corner. If the moonlight wasn't as bright, I'd fear I would go insane always brooding about what was prowling in the shadows, but thankfully, almost the entire street is ignited by the moon's silvery emission. Yet, though I'm grateful for the light, I still feel insecure, exposed to any bystander that might be silently watching and waiting where the obscure tendrils of darkness expand behind the brick structures of homes and shops now closed and abandoned. I most definitely won't be letting my guard down. I am well acquainted with the consequences sure to follow any mistake I find myself ensnared by. Yet, this time, I won't make a mistake. I can't.

Beside me, lies the thick rod I found earlier. Picking it up, I squeeze it forcefully until my purple knuckles turn ashen. Let the enemy come, if he must. I'm ready for him—I challenge, ire glinting in my eyes. The jagged bark pinches my skin, and I slowly loosen my grasp, returning to reality.

I squint into the shadows—waiting now…almost expecting to see that all-too-notorious paw reach forth from the gloom and those red-as-blood eyes appear, dead-honed on my sister. I shiver with a sudden chill and glance down at Taryn.

She appears unlike the sister I have come to love and admire. Her sweet countenance, once so youthful and rosy, has been obscured by a grim, empty shadow, and though it fluctuates with the features of my beloved sibling, how little is reflected of her youthful nature! Through her ominous, ghastly veil, I see a child, struggling to be something more, something greater. What an insensitive fool I have been! All my life, I had tried to keep her from this shadow; I had grown up so she would never have to!

At a young age, I realized how ugly the world was, and I vowed to never let her see its awfulness, never let it break her sensitive and loving heart. I wanted her to remain the tender saint she was—always believing that there is good in everyone, always looking on the bright side of dim circumstances. I was never like her; I could never be like her! I was a clumsy pessimist, tripping over my skirts and grumbling about everything, while she did her duties gracefully and with an affectionate smile.

Although I was the older sibling, how much I looked up to Taryn! I envied her golden hair, insightful blue eyes, and tender charm—the assets of our dear Mother, and I detested my dull gray eyes and raven-colored hair, not only because of their ugliness, but also because they were Father's . All in all, I never felt like a princess. Instead of dolls and benevolence, I opted for swords and rebellion, and after Mother died, I learned to play the part no one else wanted—the part of guardian.

Now staring down at Taryn's frail, little figure, my heart dies within me. Someway, somehow, I mustn't have been good enough—not faithful enough, because I have failed her.