Blackfall

Blackfall.jpg

Blackfall

It was one of the games we played, even if it was somewhat morbid. I ignored the tickle of the raven feather against my lips as I crept forward on hands and knees beneath the hedge. My target was actively hunting me, but I had the edge on him. I could see his feet as I laid flat under the shrubbery. They moved left and right before pausing and facing away from me. With the practiced stealth of a mountain lion, I slid silently from under the bush, and slipped the raven feather from my mouth into my right hand. Not even my breathing stirred the air behind my target as I drew my feather across his throat.

“I got you, Phillip!”

“That’s not fair, Arthur!”

I smiled as I dusted myself off from the sticks and needles that had found their way into my hair and clothes. “There is nothing fair about playing assassin.”

“It’s not fair because you always win! One day… I’ll win, one day!”

“What’s all this shouting about?”

I felt my eyes close ever so slightly. Saromy was the realm’s magician and he was, in my opinion, an unfortunate fixture in the palace; a fixture I never felt comfortable around. I looked up into the man’s face that was partially hidden by a hood and lifted my chin just enough to show I wasn’t intimidated by him. Even the realm’s lords bowed to him, but not me. It wasn’t my place to bow to him even though I was only ten years old.

Eight-year-old Phillip on the other hand, tipped his head differentially and pointed at me. “It’s all his fault, Master Saromy. Arthur snuck up behind me.”

“Let this be a lesson to you, Prince Phillip. You must always be on guard to protect yourself and be ever vigilant to seek opportunities that will gain you an advantage. Sometimes a little misdirection is all you need.”

Saromy turned towards me. “You are to report to your father immediately, Prince Arthur. Your lessons await.”

I sighed. I had very few hours a day that I could enjoy by myself. This was the burden I faced being firstborn. I was being groomed to take over the kingship one day.

Phillip snickered. “Serves you right, brother.”

***

“You should really let your brother win sometimes, Arthur. He’s already jealous of you.”

I could never be angry with my mom even though sometimes I disagreed with her. She reached out and parted my hair lovingly. Mom was considered the fairest woman in the entire realm, and I believed it.

“I think I’m more jealous of him. He has so few demands on his time or responsibilities.” I looked up into my mother’s blue eyes and sighed. “All right. I’ll let him win next time.”

“That’s my boy. Your father tells me that you’re doing very well with your fencing lessons and court training. While those skills are vitally important to be a king, it’s my job to teach you the subtle aspects of royal life like etiquette and how to dance. One day you will be going to balls and you will need to make an impression upon some lovely young woman.”

I frowned. “Will that be before or after I’m forced into a marriage to someone not of my choosing?”

“We live in a time of peace, Arthur. This means we can be very selective as to whom we choose for you. It’s different in times of war and strife when allegiances must be made, and yet, look at your father and me. I think we have done very well together. Are you ready for your first lesson?”

I nodded.

“I’ll lead until you can learn the steps.”

***

Over the next years I let Phillip win from time to time, but I began to realize he was never satisfied with that. When I let him win at our games, he became smug and would brag to all his friends. Today, I was determined to show him who the true master was.

I sat on a stone bench overlooking the gardens. I chose this spot to make it easy for Phillip. In my back pocket I had a sweet candy just as he would have one in his. Our game today was called the thieves’ reward and the goal was to steal the other’s candy without them knowing.

I could hear Phillip sneaking up behind me even though he was doing an excellent job of being quiet. I could sense his fingers reaching for my candy and I shifted a little to make it more difficult for him. Moments later, I felt my candy slip from my pocket and I stood to watch Phillip’s hasty, noisy retreat.

I let him get ten paces away before I called out to him.

“Phillip.”

“I beat you, Arthur!” Phillip proudly held up the candy.

I walked towards him. “I let you win. I knew you were there all along.”

“You did not! You’re just a poor loser!”

I smiled, which always seemed to make Phillip angry. “I tell you this because I want you to get better and letting you win doesn’t help you to hone your skills.”

“I’m already better than you!”

I laughed and turned away, knowing full well this was all that was needed to fuel his angry pride.

He ran at me once my back was turned, tackling me to the grass. It was easy for me to slip myself around him and roll back to my feet. By the time Phillip looked up at me, I was holding both candies.

“You must use your opponent’s emotions to make them do what you want them to do.”

In my mind, I saw the logic of teaching him this lesson, but my heart was full of compassion for him. I tossed him both candies.

“You did well today, Phillip. You’re getting better each time.”

Phillip smiled, stood, and hugged me.

***

I looked out the window at Phillip and pondered how different our lives had been. I remembered when we were younger how we used to play together and the rare few moments we weren’t antagonistic siblings. Now, at the age of twenty my day was filled with study and court duties while Phillip fraternized with the young women of the city.

I watched as Phillip leaned in to kiss a pretty girl he had just been flirting with, but she spun away from him with a burst of laughter. Phillip did receive schooling, but he hated every minute of it. He took it upon himself to remind me of his freedom every chance he got.

I envied him his freedom, but the realms were once again moving into difficult and troublesome times. I knew my place and my role. One day I might have to lead this realm.

“Prince Arthur, the King will see you now.”

Turning around, I stepped boldly towards the large double doors that led into the throne room. Guards opened them for me and closed them once I passed through. I immediately knew something was amiss as the room was empty.

A smile twitched up at the edge of my mouth. “Father?”

I heard a soft step behind me, and I quickly drew my sword and turned around. The metal tip of my blade stopped a hairsbreadth from the neck of my assailant.

I smiled as I recognized him. “Hold, Captain Evan.”

The captain looked down my blade and shouted. “Now!”

Three guards rushed me from all sides. I tipped my head towards the captain and spun lightly away from him. I drew my dagger with my left hand and backed slowly towards the throne. Captain Evan and the other three guards brandished their swords at me with grins on their faces. They knew they had their prey exactly where they wanted.

“Now is a time for you all to withdraw peacefully before I teach you a lesson.”

Captain Evan laughed. “We receive a gold coin apiece to bring you down, Prince Arthur.”

“Therein lies your defeat. For I fight for honor and the joy in seeing my skills put to the test, whereas you all fight for greed.”

I stepped forward and parried a thrust from one of the guards. A quick twist of my wrist sent his sword clattering across the polished marble floors. A second guard thrust at my left side. Twisting my dagger down, I blocked the guard’s thrust and pushed his sword up and over my head as I slipped underneath his guard I let the tip of my blade score his right breast.

The rules of engagement were clear. The guard dropped his sword as I continued to move behind him putting him between me and my remaining two adversaries.

“Nicely done, Prince Arthur, but we’re not finished yet.”

The captain lunged forcing me to dodge into the oncoming attack of the last remaining guard. It was a gutsy move on my part, knowing that as the guard’s sword grazed my right shoulder, I would lose my right arm for the remainder of the fight.

My dodge was well timed, but the guard’s sword technique wasn’t as accurate, and I felt his sword cut through my clothing. Dropping my sword, I ducked low and touched my dagger into the chest of the guard before rolling and picking up my sword with my left hand.

Captain Evan circled slowly, tossing his sword from his right hand to left to force me into shifting my stance. He grinned, tensed, and threw his blade back into his right hand. Seeing my moment of opportunity, I thrust my sword and snagged his handguard, spearing his sword mid-air. With a quick lift of my wrist, his sword slid down my blade leaving the captain defenseless.

With a flourish and a laugh, he bowed. “Very well done, my Prince. I dare say there is no better swordsman in all the realms. You have learned well over the years.”

“Better than me, Captain?”

I turned to see father stepping out from the shadows.

Captain Evan tipped his head. “Yes, my King. He is even better than you.”

“Then I commend you and your training.”

Father stood by me and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. He frowned and pulled his arm back to glance at his hand. “You’re bleeding, son.”

I checked my right shoulder where I could see my skin was exposed and a small line of blood passed over my cross-shaped birthmark. “It’s nothing.”

Captain Evan turned quickly to the guard that hit me. “Did your zeal for gold make you forget your skill?”

The guard paled. “No, Captain. I was unprepared for his…”

I stepped between the two. “I’m fine. I moved into his blade on purpose.”

Captain Evan pointed to the door. “Go! We’re not finished discussing this.”

The guard turned and immediately left the throne room.

“You shouldn’t cover for his mistake, my Prince.”

“We’ve long since abandoned our training weapons, Captain. Even with all our years of learning, we are bound to make mistakes from time to time. Go easy on him.”

Captain Evan tipped his head towards me and then to my father. “Well fought, my Prince.” With that, he turned, and the other guards followed him out.

Father waited until the doors closed and we were alone. He held me at arms-length and stared into my eyes. “You make me a proud king and an even prouder father. You’ve not become conceited or entitled but have honor and goodness in your heart. I’ve never seen anyone as gifted with a blade as you, yet you have a penchant for mercy and compassion. Walk with me, Arthur.”

I always enjoyed spending quality time with my father which was far more frequent than one would expect of a father that was also king. We walked through hallways and spoke of the future and the past. We paused on the topmost rampart of the palace.

“One day you will rule here, Arthur. The people of the city beyond the palace and those living within the realm will depend on you. Our days of peace seem to be coming to an end. New kings from the north have banded together in an alliance and they seem to be set on expansion into our lands.”

“Who have you chosen for me?”

Father laughed. “Sometimes I forget just how smart you are. I had carefully crafted and prepared a long speech to get to the point where I would sell my thoughts to you and here you cut right to the point. An alliance with Riverden would be the most preferable, and there are a few other strong realms, but they have no daughters for you to marry. I believe it would be in our best interests to seek a formal alliance with Waredby to our southeast.”

I sighed. “You’re speaking of Princess Faye. I am and will always be a prince of this realm. For the protection of our people we will need that alliance and I will do what is best.”

“I expected you to fight me on this. You’ve always been led by your heart.”

“Who am I to say what’s in my best interest or what the future holds for me? You and mother would never put me in a position where I would be unhappy. Princess Faye is a lovely young woman.”

Father hugged me. “Get your shoulder looked at, son.”

I watched him leave and glanced back down to the grounds where Phillip was still flirting with the young woman. I was, first and foremost, the eldest son of a king. I wouldn’t voice my displeasure with the decision as it would do me no good.

***

Phillip stood and waited for Saromy to acknowledge him, but his patience had worn out. “You sent for me, Master Saromy?”

“Close the door, Prince Phillip.”

Phillip disliked being told what to do and contemplated going back into the city to imbibe in some ale and women at his favorite tavern. Still, he closed the door and stepped into Saromy’s expansive room that was filled with dusty old books and glass vials scattered everywhere.

“What’s this all about?”

Saromy pulled back his hood and gave Phillip a penetrating and silent stare. “What if I could give you what you desire the most?”

“Abigail from Cargencourt?”

Saromy sighed. “You ask me a question in return as if I know what you most desire.”

“You’re the one that suggested you could give me what I most desire. I must assume you think you know what that is.”

Saromy sneered. “You’re not as stupid as you make yourself out to be, boy.”

“I tire of this. You have never directed me wrong before, Saromy. What are you getting at?”

“How would you like to become King of Blackfall?”

Phillip pondered this for many minutes. He understood what Saromy was saying. “As much as I despise Arthur’s position as firstborn over me, you must promise me one thing. He’s to be kept alive to see the day I take the throne from him. This will be the time I can truly show him who won the ultimate game.”

Saromy offered a crooked smile. “I believe I can accommodate your wishes. Arthur will…”

“Enough has been spoken already. I want to know nothing more.”

“You will make a wise king, Phillip.”

***

The leaves on the trees had begun to change color and filled the horizon with yellow, gold, and red hues. It wouldn’t be long before they would start falling to the ground. The night air was chilled; the mornings crisp. These signs were just a few indicating my marriage to Princess Faye would soon be upon me. This was a marriage of convenience rather than love.

I had just returned from spending time with my mother when I ran into Saromy rushing towards me in the main hall.

“Prince Arthur, you must come right away to my quarters! Your father… Something has happened to him.”

I raced through the halls after Saromy. What has happened? Why is father in Saromy’s quarters?

Saromy turned a corner and passed through his doorway into his room. I was only a few seconds behind him and had just entered his apartment when suddenly my feet stopped moving. Try as I might, I couldn’t move from where I was. Looking up at Saromy, I could see him sneer as he stepped behind me and closed the door.

“If nothing else, you’re very predictable, Arthur.”

“What’s going on? Where’s father?”

He laughed. “Your father never comes to me anymore. At one time I was his greatest advisor, now he turns to you, his favorite.”

I looked down at my feet and tried to lift them to no avail. There were markings on the ground in a circle around me.

“What have you done? What sorcery is this? Release me!”

“I will, in time. By the way, shout and scream all you want; the room is magically silenced.” Saromy walked slowly around me being careful to avoid stepping inside the circles that he had made on the floor. “You never liked me, Arthur. Your brother, however, has always been far easier to manipulate.”

“If you touch, Phillip, I’ll personally run you through. Release me before your sentence for this treachery ends in your death.”

I reached down and tried to pull my feet from the ground, but they were stuck firm.

“It’s heartwarming to see your desire to protect your brother when he is not so concerned about your welfare.”

Saromy knelt on the floor and began adding additional markings completing a second circle that attached to mine.

“I call upon the darkness to do my bidding and you will obey.”

A flicker of fire sprouted from the center of the second circle. I was mesmerized by the sight.

“Rise, mighty demon!”

The ground shook, and a deafening roar filled the room. The flame became a fire; the fire became a beast. It screamed and thrust itself against an invisible wall. Fire consumed it, yet it held its shape; saliva dripped from its fangs like drops of molten rock, sizzling upon the stone floor as it hit. The air was filled with the smell of burning sulfur.

“Who dare calls me?”

Saromy stepped closer to the ring. “Your master.”

“While you may control me, you will never be my master. I yield to no one.”

The orange fire from the demon made Saromy’s face appear distorted and evil in the flickering shadows.

“You will do my bidding.”

The demon thrust itself in anger against the wall of the circle.

I had only heard of such magic before. Tearing my gaze from the hideous demon, I looked back at Saromy. “What is it you want, Saromy?”

“Phillip will become King and a useful puppet.”

“You seek to overthrow Blackfall.”

Saromy laughed. “There is more to life than Blackfall.”

Pulling my dagger, I tried to thrust through the invisible wall, but my blade deflected off air as hard as diamonds.

Saromy chuckled to himself and turned to face me directly as he began speaking his curse.

“You will irrevocably be changed forever. You will remember who you were, but to all, it will be as if Arthur had never been born alive.”

I felt tingling move up the back of my spine and even though I wanted to cry out, I couldn’t.

“Your rare and exceptional beauty will be masked by pain and death.”

The tingling became a chill and I shivered as if stepping naked into a windswept frozen wasteland.

“History will be rewritten. Arthur Sutton will be no more. Camila will be your name.”

Saromy faced the demon. “You will fulfill my curse.” He reached down and wiped away a central marking that bound my circle to the demon’s. “Do my bidding, servant of darkness!”

The demon glared at Saromy before turning its fiery gaze upon me. It spread its fanged mouth and stretched forth its clawed hands. Upon its touch, I was engulfed in white-hot flames. Every cell of my body screamed out in agonizing, buring pain.

***

The floor shook, and I felt myself lifted momentarily off the ground only to land hard. My eyes opened quickly, but everything was dark except for a sliver of light coming up from a small hole in the rough, wooden floor I found myself on.

My entire body hurt as I struggled to push myself up into a sitting position. The floor kept bouncing and swaying from side to side. Something stringy moved past my lips and I reached up to pull whatever it was away only to grab a fistful of hair. I thrust my hand away from myself, but that only hurt myself as the long hair seemed to be attached to my head.

Fighting panic, I crawled slowly towards the hole. The sound of chains rattled as I moved. What little light that came up through the hole was enough for me to tell I was in a carriage and I was moving along a rutted dirt roadway. That accounted for the bouncing and swaying, but not for the smaller, more feminine hand that I saw that was tightly gripping the edge of the hole.

“My God… What did Saromy do to me?” My voice was no longer my own. It was softer; higher pitched.

I frantically pulled at my hair to bring it towards the light. It was clumped together and dirty, but long and dark. My hands immediately went to my chest to feel breasts beneath a rough-hewn cloth. My final act of desperation was to reach between my legs and scream out the hole at the top of my lungs.

The carriage stopped abruptly, and I barely managed to hang on. I listened at the hole as sounds of footsteps approached the back of the carriage. I strained to hear the slightest sound until something metal clicked near me. Suddenly my world was filled with light.

The back of the carriage opened, and a grizzled old man’s face appeared to my squinting eyes. Metal bars framed the inside of the carriage box I was in and I could see bits of straw and my own ankle chained to the far wall.

“Shut yer trap, girl.”

“What’s happened to me? Where are you taking me?”

“None yer business, girl.”

I glanced down at myself and could see that I was shapely yet lean. My skin, although filthy, was young looking.

“Let me out! I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m…” The words Prince Arthur of Blackfall couldn’t come out of my mouth. What came out surprised me. “Camila.”

“I don care what yer name is. Shut yer trap and when I is stopped tonight you’ll git water and bread.”

He began to close the exterior door.

“Wait! Please! How did I get here? Where are you taking me?”

The door slammed shut and I was plunged into darkness once again. I sat back and quelled the desire to vomit as the carriage lurched forward. My shaking hands reached to touch my body.

***

I could only guess that a week had passed since I woke up in the carriage. How long I had lain unconscious before that was unknown to me. Over the past days, I had grown somewhat acclimated to my new body. Oddly, it didn’t feel wrong to me, just that my mind struggled with the magic that could have done this and the fear that nagged me about my family back in Blackfall and Saromy’s treachery.

The hole, as it turned out, was my only place to relieve myself. My caretaker, if you could call him that, refused to speak with me and I only caught brief glimpses of the outside world and myself when I received my small ration of water and stale bread.

I could only gather that we had been travelling south towards the ocean and, if my geography lessons were correct, towards Riverden. Riverden was a good fifteen day’s journey from Blackfall. I began catching rare scents of fresh salty air when gusts of wind blew in from the hole in the confining, smelly, festering cabin.

Today, the carriage seemed to be on the road longer than normal and even the little light coming up from the hole had gone dark by the time we stopped. All I could tell was that the road had smoothed, and I could hear echoes of horse’s hooves that would indicate I may have entered a town.

When the outer gate opened, it was dark outside, and the grizzled old man held up a glowing lantern. Instead of bread and water, he reached up and unlocked the inner metal door.

“Gimme yer foot.”

I was in no shape to argue. I had conserved as much energy as I could but was helplessly weak. I stretched out my foot and heard the glorious sound of my ankle bracelet click open.

“Git out!”

I crawled slowly and cautiously towards the entrance of the cage and hesitated a moment trying to get my bearings, but the man grabbed my arm and pulled me out into a heap on the ground. I slowly picked myself up off the cobblestone street to find myself in a dark alley. The man pointed to a small loaf of bread and a jug of water sitting on a wooden barrel some fifty paces away.

By the time I took several steps towards the food, the carriage pulled away. I was frightened, but I was at least free.

I stood tall and stretched, feeling the rough cloth of the shift pull against my breasts. I needed food, water, and shelter. I walked over towards the barrel and noticed for the first time how graceful I felt.

“History will be rewritten.”

Saromy’s curse came to my mind. Did Saromy’s magic make it as if I was born a woman?

I didn’t bother pondering the thought any further. I was starved. I grabbed the bread and took a big bite out of it. I felt feral as I ripped the bread with my teeth and guzzled water directly from the jug.

Men’s voices from the end of the alley shook me from my intense focus on my meal. Pulling the bread and water close to my body, I moved quietly in the opposite direction until more voices caused me to stop.

“I have the salt pork and apples boxed and ready to go to the palace in the morning.”

“Just keep a close eye on them.”

“No need. I paid my protection fee to Canter. His thugs and thieves will leave us alone.”

“One day…”

Their words drifted away, and I spotted an open carriage with a tarp covering the contents. The cool night air brought a shiver to my bones and I pulled the tarp off and wrapped it around me. Beneath the tarp were boxes filled with apples and meat. I grabbed some meat and apples and slipped underneath the cart.

***

I had a fitful sleep, but it had still been better than when I was chained in the cabin of the carriage. Every sound brought me to full alertness. Through the night, I ate sparingly and slowly allowing my body time to absorb the food and bring my strength back.

I was still puzzled about my transformation into a woman. While my mind rebelled at the new sensations my body was producing, I had never felt awkward in my movements. I feared what I might look like and what may lie in store for me as an unprotected woman in a world of ruthless men.

Over the past week I had much time to consider Saromy’s motives. I mentally reviewed every word of our encounter. What I didn’t fully understand was why he let me live. Why the elaborate spell to turn me into a woman? Why send me days and weeks away and have me dropped off in a back alley?My only assumption was that he wanted me to suffer pain and humiliation.

With the first rays of sunlight, the city began to stir to life. I found a sliver of sun and warmed myself before putting the tarp back over the boxes. The sound of horse’s hooves and doors opening nearby was enough for me to know I shouldn’t be staying put. Reaching up into the carriage, I grabbed an apple and readied myself for a quick getaway.

“You! Thief!”

I peered out towards a shouting man. At one end of the alley, four guards started to dismount from their horses. With the sunlight now fully engulfing the alleyway, I looked behind me to find the alley was a dead end.

“You dare steal the apples of the King?”

One of the four guards pointed at me. Clearly, they didn’t see me as a threat, but their shouting was drawing the attention of onlookers and the more people around, the harder it would be for me to escape.

Stepping out from behind the carriage, I looked towards the four guards. One that appeared to be their leader sent one of the guards into the alley to confront me. The guard looked rather lazy.

“Who are you that defies the King and steals from him?”

I had no doubts that as my old self I could easily best these guards in a fight. I glanced towards the leader’s horse. It was a large, beautiful black stallion. I took in my entire surroundings and formulated my plan.

“I’m speaking to you, girl. Put the apple down. You’re trapped and have nowhere to go.”

“This apple?”

“Yes, that apple. It belongs to the King.”

“I see that the King has many apples. Certainly, he is a kind and generous King and wouldn’t mind bequeathing one to a starving person. Let me be upon my way and you won’t see me again.”

The guard frowned. I quickly glanced at their leader as his look told me he seemed to be enjoying this interaction.

“The law is the law. You must be punished for stealing.”

He stepped forward and paused as I bit into the apple.

“How dare you!”

The guard came close and reached for me, but I threw the apple towards his face. He moved exactly as I expected by raising his hands to protect himself. Reaching forward, I pulled the guard’s sword from its scabbard and pointed it at his chest.

His eyes moved to the point of his own sword and took a step back. Having the sword in my hand gave me confidence as I reached up into the carriage and pulled yet another apple from a box.

“You would arrest a guest of your city for eating a single apple when you have thousands? A guest that was kidnapped, chained, and brought here after many day’s journey? I may look like a vagrant, but I only take that which I need to survive. Let me go and I will leave in peace and when I have the opportunity to repay the King, I will do so.”

Even though the air was cool, sweat broke out on the forehead of the guard. “What are you all standing there for? Give me a hand!”

Two other guards drew their swords and moved forward towards us. I tested my blade’s balance by swinging it around and was pleased that my new body seemed to respond the same way to my old training.

Knowing I couldn’t deal with three men in my depleted state, I opted for distraction. Two quick thrusts cut through the first guard’s suspenders. With his pants falling around his ankles, I dodged him and ran by. He tripped and fell face first onto the cobblestones as he tried to reach for me.

Their leader laughed. “You’re not going to let this girl beat all of you, are you?”

I was now confronted by the other two guards and they effectively cut off my escape route. They moved together to force my back towards the wall. During my years of training, I had found pain an excellent motivator. Father and Captain Evan were ruthless in that they would exploit my same weakness repeatedly until I learned to train my body to not respond the way it wanted.

Both guards were right-handed and with them standing next to the other it gave me a small chance.

“Drop the blade, girl. Your resistance will only make things worse for you.”

The first guard was scrambling to his feet, so I had no time to chat. I swatted the flat of my sword against the guard on my right’s hand. It wouldn’t do damage, but it would hurt like hell. As expected, he dropped his sword and jerked his hand back, hitting the guard next to him and throwing them both off balance.

In the commotion, I darted away from the wall and was only steps from freedom when I ran face-first into their leader. He grabbed both my wrists and twisted hard forcing me to drop my sword. It was at this moment that I fully realized my situation as a woman. While I still had my skills, I was far weaker than a man. He held me easily. I was much smaller than I had been before, and this realization was frightening.

The man smiled at me and sniffed. “You need a bath. You stink.”

“Try being locked in a cage for over a week and see how you smell.” My anger at his words and the injustice of it all got the better of me. I thrust up my knee into his groin. He let me go as he doubled over in pain. I turned to run, but only got a step as the three other guards were standing in my way. They looked none too pleased with me.

My hands were quickly tied to a long rope and once their leader recovered, he climbed back onto his horse.

“Hand me the rope.”

“Yes, my…”

The leader cut him off. “Captain. You address me as Captain.”

“Yes, Captain.”

The leader gave a slight tug on the rope making me lurch forward. “It will be easier on you if you walk, girl.”

He turned away from me and I smiled. He never tied the end of the rope to the saddle. Using all my weight and strength, I pulled back against the rope. It was enough to unbalance the man and caused him to fall off his horse. Just as he was getting to his knees, I ran towards him, stepped on his shoulder with my bare, dirty foot, and vaulted onto the horse’s back. I rapidly pulled the excess rope to me as I kicked the horse’s side.

The stallion bolted so quickly, that I almost fell from the saddle. I looked back over my shoulder to see the captain scramble up onto one of the other horses. Spurring my stallion faster, we leapt over a stall of fruit and headed for the city gate.

I could hear the captain shout from behind me. “Close the gate!”

The guards at the gate were way too slow as I raced past them and out beyond the city walls and into the countryside. Only the captain managed to get through the gate before the guards closed it.

I found exhilaration in the chase, and even though I feared for my life, I smiled. My horse flew across the meadows and with my lighter body on his back we were outpacing the captain. Turning slightly left to avoid a pond and make my escape over a river bridge, I heard a whistle.

My horse stopped dead in his tracks and lowered his head. I cringed in mid-flight as I continued through the air, crashing through reeds, and landed hard in the greenest, foulest pond water I had ever seen.

I came up sputtering, my feet sinking into the cold, muddy ooze; my rough shift clung to my feminine body. I spat out the foul water and looked back to the shore to see the captain dismounting with a grin on his face.

He patted his black stallion’s neck. “Good boy.”

I shivered as the man approached me and I felt the lack of nourishment and water catch up to me as my adrenaline drained from my system. I made a weak attempt at getting to shore. The captain held out his hand to pull me the final few steps. Looking up into his eyes, I felt my body succumb to my fight and weakness. My knees began to shake. “Help me...”

***

“Clean her up, ladies, then send her back in to see me.”

I must have passed out for I was no longer at the pond but lying on a cold tile floor. Hands reached for me.

“She’s filthy!”

Another woman on the other side of me held her nose.

“She smells like she bathed in the sewers as well!”

The women pulled me into the warmth of a large bath. I was still weakened, but slowly recovering.

“The things we do for the…”

“Hush… We will not shirk our duties.”

Their hands stripped the shift from me.

I held my hands over myself protectively as I had felt oddly safe in the rough gown.

Their hands stopped rubbing at my skin and they took a step back. I looked up at them questioningly. “What’s wrong?”

“Beneath the dirt and pond scum, you’re beautiful. You’re no peasant. Who are you?”

“I’m Camila from Blackfall.”

“What’s your last name?”

I tried to say Sutton, but the spell wouldn’t let me. “I have no family name.”

They both frowned. “Let’s get you cleaned up, Camila.”

***

It was, by far, the longest bath I ever had. The two women scrubbed my nails and took a great deal of time washing the sludge out of my hair. For me, it was the first time I saw my naked body. I was slender, and slightly taller than the other women. My breasts appeared large to my eyes. My hair was long, to the middle of my back.

Once clean and dried off, the women gave me a dress and shoes to wear before they brushed out my hair until it was smooth and shiny. They fed me and gave me water before leading me into a room where I was left alone.

Spotting a mirror on the wall, I walked over to it. I felt a tear slip from my eye as I looked upon the face of an extraordinarily beautiful young woman. It vaguely reminded me of my mother’s. My dark brown hair framed my face and my stunning blue eyes gave me pause.

“Your rare and exceptional beauty will be masked by pain and death.”

I stepped back and took in my full body. My mind told me I was a man, but my eyes told a different tale. Before me stood a young woman of incredible poise and grace. Her beauty would be sought after. It took time for me to absorb the fact that the reflection was my own.

Looking away from the mirror, I took in the room. I was in trouble; I was a young woman, a thief, an assaulter of city guards. This did not bode well. I tried the door behind me that would lead back to the baths but found it locked. A quick search of the room established there were no useable weapons.

Looking down, I could see the tops of my breasts rising and falling with each breath. The sound of a door opening caused me to look up.

The captain of the guards stepped into the room. His eyes locked onto mine after a brief glance up and down at my body. His presence conflicted me. Saromy’s spell had completely changed me.

“It will be as if Arthur had never been born alive.”

History has been rewritten.Before me stood a man that quickened my heart and I had a strong desire to impress him; to make him like me.

“The ladies told me you cleaned up nicely. They could not have understated that more. You’re extremely beautiful which begs many questions. How did you get in the condition you were in? How and where did you learn to fight? Where are those that would be searching for this lost beauty? Perhaps, we should start with introductions. I’m Captain Calder.”

Now seeing him and recalling how his guards deferred to him, the quality of his horse, and even the ladies that did his bidding, I knew he was lying. “Why lie to me?”

“I’m not lying.”

“What city is this?”

“Riverden. How do you not know where you are?”

“You’re Prince Landon Caldswell, aren’t you?”

“How do you not know where you are and yet you know me?”

I smiled. “I guessed. Everyone knows well the Caldswells are the ruling family here in Riverden. No guard could afford a horse like yours. Why would you try to hide who you are from me?”

“I’m the one asking questions here. You’re the one that was caught stealing and abused my guards and stole my horse.”

“You seriously need to train your guards better.”

“Who are you? You stand with regal bearing. You’re intelligent, although that could be debated by your actions this morning. You toyed with my guards and my guards are exceptional fighters.”

“My name is Camila. I once lived in Blackfall.”

“Edward Sutton is the King there. Prince Phillip is first in line for the throne. You must come from one of the noble families there and yet I have never seen you at any of the realms’ social events.”

“History will be rewritten.”

I turned away from him to hide my conflicting emotions. News couldn’t have travelled this quickly.

“It will be as if Arthur had never been born alive.”

Phillip is set to become king. I stifled a cry at my loss and complete realization that what Saromy had done was beyond just transforming me into a woman. He completely erased me from history. I no longer have a claim, a home, a family. It was with this realization that I gave my reply.

“I’m of no noble family. I don’t even have a last name. I’m a common thief; a peasant.”

“There is nothing common about you. You said you were kidnapped?”

I moved over to the window and stared out at the palace grounds and the city beyond. “I lied. It’s what I do.”

“Your ankle… There are abrasions on it.”

I was despondent. “What happened to me no longer matters.”

“If you’re not honest with me, I can’t help you.”

“Why would you help a thief that broke your laws and stole from your King? I assaulted your guards. You understand why there are laws. Without laws there is anarchy. The rule of law must be upheld and applied equally and justly for every citizen. My life is gone. All that I had and what I once was is no more. I have no family, no wealth, no home.”

“I don’t believe you. You spout laws as if you understand what it takes to enforce them. You rode my horse, which is no small feat. You rode him as if you have ridden horses all your life.”

I stepped over to him until there were mere inches between us. I looked up into his eyes. “You would do best to be rid of me. I’m of no consequence, no value. Throw me in your prison. Put me to death for harming a firstborn prince. For I am nothing other than a common thief.”

To prove my point, I held up his knife and handed it back to him before turning back and walking over to the window.

“Guards!”

I turned around quickly to face the door as four guards quickly entered the room.

“Yes… Captain.”

The prince smiled. “You can do away with the pretense. She knows. Give your sword to the lady.”

“My Prince?”

“Your sword. Give it to her.”

The guard came to me and placed his sword in my hand. The prince drew his own sword.

He gave an order to his guards. “You will not intervene under any circumstances.”

“But, my Prince?”

“If the lady defeats me, you are to give her one thousand gold and take her anywhere she wishes as a free citizen.”

The prince stepped towards me, offered a slight bow, and crisply snapped his sword up to forty-five degrees.

I tipped my head and did the same with my sword. I touched my blade to his, then stepped back and laid my sword on the floor.

“I don’t wish to fight you.”

With the swiftness and skill of a trained swordsman, the prince flipped the sword up off the ground and into his other hand. He handed it back to the guard and ordered them all to leave.

“You’re no commoner or thief. A thief would have taken any chance for the kind of wealth I offered you. A commoner would never be trained in fencing to even understand the formal acknowledgement of touched swords. I’m at a loss not knowing what to do with you.”

“For what I have done, I should expect no kindness. I stole because I needed food and I defended myself from being put into another cage. I put myself under your laws willingly, for as I assess my situation, I know there is nothing else for me to do. You can’t free me, Prince Landon, for your guards would speak and this would undermine your authority.”

The prince sat down at the desk and stared at his dagger as he spun it, tip down, on the worn wooden surface. “How much do you believe your crimes are worth?”

“Two gold for stealing the King’s food. Fifty gold for resisting arrest. Five hundred gold for attacking a Prince without intent to harm.”

The prince shook his head. “You’ve done this before. Five hundred and fifty-two gold coins are what you owe the crown. Can you pay this amount?”

“Even the dress I wear is not owned by me.”

“Then it’s settled. You will work for me until your debt is fully paid.”

Heat flushed to my face. “You’re sorely mistaken if you think I will grace your bed to pay for my crimes!”

He raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t thinking about that. It is, however, an image that may keep me up at night. My father would be rather upset with me if I did. He has been speaking of formally introducing me to Princess Faye.”

“Of Waredby.”

“I won’t ask how you know so much about the court as I’m sure I won’t get a good answer. The city has a problem.”

“Are you speaking about Canter? I overheard citizens last night saying they pay him fees to avoid being robbed.”

“Why is it I feel you should be sitting in this seat? Yes… It’s Canter among other problems. Canter is the ring leader of the city’s underworld. He controls the black market, the sex trade, and the thieves’ guild. He revels in his power, but there are factions that are pushing hard to wrest control from him. Some of these factions, I believe, are being introduced from the far north.”

“The realms that have fallen to the alliances in the north first became unstable. The kings of the realms were under attack from within their own cities. It would make sense that the northern allied kings are sending spies to create chaos and to destabilize the realms before the north attacks.”

The prince stood and walked over to me. “You’re remarkable.”

“You’re sending me to infiltrate Canter’s underground as a way for me to pay off my debt?”

The prince shook his head. “There is something about you, Camila. Are you certain there is nothing more you can share about yourself?”

“I would if there was anything to share. If I had a family, I would have fought to return to them. I am, however, not without enemies. While I may never regain what has been taken from me, I will not stop until my enemy lies at my feet. I must be very careful and plan my revenge methodically. This will take money and resources. Working for you will help me accomplish what I need to do.”

“If someone has wronged you, we can leave together and deal with them.”

“You don’t understand the powers at play here. Something larger is afoot and the game being played is on a scale I’ve never seen before. I’m good at games, Prince Landon. I will win, but I have to be properly positioned and know my enemy well before I make a move.”

“I’m not sure of this game you speak of nor will I tolerate any harm to this household or citizens of this realm.”

“I wouldn’t dream of harming Riverden’s citizens or dishonor your family.”

“Here is what I ask and offer you. You will go to Canter and win his confidence. You will report back to me twice a week. I will offer you two gold per week and provide you accommodations within the city.”

“That’s very generous of you. I could use some clothes and weapons to start. You do realize that I will be forced to lead a dual life. To win Canter’s confidence, I may be required to break your laws.”

“I understand, but you are in the employ of the Prince of Riverden. I’ll make sure you have everything you need, Camila.”

***

My apartment was rough, simple, in a bad part of town, but it was clean. For the first time since my transformation I had a chance to sit down and evaluate my situation but all I could think about was how this body had responded to Prince Landon’s presence. No doubt, this was Saromy’s plan all along to inflict the most suffering on me as possible. I was attracted to the prince and that truth weighed heavily upon me.

When I looked in the mirror, I was startled by my beauty. My eyes were intense, alluring, and inquisitive. My lips were full, and I favored my mother’s looks. Pulling my dress to the side, I looked at my right shoulder. The only blemish on my otherwise flawless skin was a cross-shaped birthmark. It was as if I had become a female twin of myself.

I paced my room and my eyes continually sought their reflection in the mirror. Saromy did this to me and he can undo it. I need to pay my debt so that I can return to Blackfall.

The day had been challenging and my mind had been working itself into a frenzy. The small bed beckoned me. It was nothing like the massive, high, lofty mattress of my room back in Blackfall, but it would be the first comfort I had since I was transformed. I slipped out of my overdress, laid down, and drifted off to sleep.

***

Saromy watched Phillip, his mother, and father from the upper rampart of the palace. Everything had gone perfectly; everything except for the demon’s interpretation of the curse. History had been rewritten, but the day following Arthur’s transformation, Saromy had found a marker in the garden; a marker that had never been there before.

The marker read, “In loving memory of our beloved son, Arthur, that died at childbirth and his twin, our beloved daughter, Anna, now taken and presumed lost. May we one day see you both again.”

Saromy had later overheard the queen as he hid behind a bush in the garden.

“A week from today will mark thirteen years to the day that our Anna was kidnapped and taken from us. She would be twenty years old now.”

Saromy had fumed and returned to his quarters to cast his circle and once again bring forth the demon to demand answers.

“I did your bidding. Why call me again? I grow weary of your stench.”

“You changed my curse.”

The demon laughed. “I fulfilled your curse.”

“You turned him into his twin sister.”

“Changing history is a delicate task. Arthur had a real twin sister that was stillborn. I changed history twice at great cost of my own power. I switched Arthur and Anna at birth but since I was to leave him alive, history needed to be changed to accommodate a lost princess.”

“What destiny have you created, you fool?”

“Beware the raven, Saromy.”

The demon laughed and vanished.

Saromy slid his hand across his desk throwing everything crashing to the ground. He donned his cloak and walked into town. Coming upon a heavy door, he knocked three times, then paused and knocked twice more. The door opened, and he pushed himself inside.

“Send men to Riverden and put notices everywhere along the way. Find the girl called Camila and kill her at any cost.”

***

I woke flushed. My dreams had been powerful and enticing. In them, Prince Landon came to me and I had welcomed his embrace.

Moving to where I had a bowl filled with water, I splashed a little on my face and paused to let my racing heart settle. My body was failing me and leading me where my mind didn’t wish to go.

In order to cleanse the images of my dream from my head, I removed my underdress and quickly changed into a new outfit; an outfit that wasn’t quite the beautiful dresses my body and heart desired to wear but that my mind fought. Black leather pants, black knee-high boots, black blouse, and a black overcoat would allow me to move as needed. I carried two daggers, one on each hip, and an additional dagger in my left boot. I also strapped on a black-hilted sword.

Leaving my apartment behind, I walked down towards the river docks. This was where I anticipated I would see the criminal underground in action. Finding a wooden crate to sit on, I watched as people came and went and shipments were unloaded from boats.

It wasn’t long before I began to spot criminal activities. Two small men, more boys, were working their way along the docks near where people departed ferries. The ferries carried people from the sea port a short distance away and upriver to the docks here. I watched as they made several runs through different crowds before taking their spoils to a nearby alley.

I left my spot on the crate and worked my way around to the alley. There I found an older man packing two small boxes.

“I’ll take what’s in those boxes.”

The man eyed me with great suspicion. “That wouldn’t be wise, lady. Move along before you get yourself hurt.”

“You have two boys pickpocketing the passengers and bringing you their loot. I could go to the city guards and tell them what you’re doing. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll take one of the two boxes leaving you with something to bring in to account for your time here this morning.”

The man pulled a long knife but with a few quick parries of my sword, I had him disarmed in seconds. My sword’s point pressed up against his throat.

“Shall we try this negotiation again?”

“Take the box. Canter will hear about this.”

I had thought about an alias for myself and the memory of the raven feather in my lips came to mind. “Tell him Ravenna is new in town and looking for special jobs. Thank you for your cooperation.”

I slipped the small box under one arm and backed away from the man before heading to my apartment. Once there I opened the box to find bits of gold jewelry, coin purses, and even the odd bit of food. This all amounted to four or five gold pieces and as I looked around my room, I considered making a few changes. I may be indebted to the prince, but there was no need for me to live in complete squalor.

I was, however, wise with my money knowing that I would need it to eventually buy my freedom and seek my revenge on Saromy. I took half of the coins and jewelry and hid them. After changing into the dress I was given at the palace and using some string to put my hair up, I took the remaining coins and decided a little shopping was in order.

As I moved through the city, I kept my eyes peeled for additional underground activities spotting a few here and there. In this part of town, I found a group of three men moving from business to business and leaving with bags of coins. I entered one business just after they had left. Looking around the store, I could see it was filled with beautiful dresses.

A pretty young woman behind the counter looked a little distressed but smiled and gave me a warm welcome.

“Those men that were just here. This doesn’t look like the kind of shop they would buy things from.”

“They were merely looking for directions, my lady.”

“How much did they ask for?”

“My lady?”

“Never mind.”

“Are you here to find something for the ball?”

“The ball? I wasn’t aware of one and I don’t have an invite.”

“This is the fall festival ball. Everyone is invited. A woman of your rare beauty might just catch the eye of one of the noblemen. With the right dress, of course. I’m Celeste.”

“Pleased to meet you, Celeste. I’m Camila.”

I glanced at a stunning lavender dress in the window. I wondered what I might look like in it and then reminded myself I wasn’t a woman before reminding myself I was.

“When exactly is the ball?”

“In three days, my lady.”

That was the day I was to give my first report to Prince Landon. He would certainly be at the ball.

“How much for that dress?”

“Oh, my… I see your current dress and I’m afraid that dress will be… Perhaps I can suggest something else?”

“What would it cost for it to be fitted exactly for me?”

“My father and mother worked for over a month on that dress.” Celeste cringed a little as she shared the price. “Eight-hundred silver.”

“You seem like a lovely girl, Celeste, and I’m certain those men were in here up to no good.” I opened my coin bag and pulled out my only gold coin. “Will this suffice?”

Celeste’s eyes lit up.

***

My idea had begun taking shape. I would steal from the thieves as Ravenna, then shop and give back to the local community as Camila. This way I would never hold too much money to lose in case I got robbed and at the same time I would start building trust with the shop owners.

For the next few days I was a thorn in Canter’s side. After several swordfights and feeling more confident that I could hold my own, I strategically placed myself in the path of the three men taking money from the businesses.

Following them into a side street, I made sure the area was clear before introducing myself. “Your load is looking rather heavy. I would be pleased to lighten it for you.”

The three men turned and drew their swords. The leader of their group stepped forward.

“We were told about you.”

“You can tell your boss, Canter, that I would be happy to meet him at the docks tomorrow morning. Now, hand over those purses. I would hate for any of you to have to receive medical care.”

“If we bring you to Canter, we receive a bonus. He didn’t say how we brought you.” He glanced over my shoulder towards two thugs with daggers coming up behind me. “You’re vastly outnumbered.”

I needed to make a statement, but I didn’t want to kill anyone, even if these were people that likely were paid to hurt others. I spun and threw a dagger at each of the two men, hitting them both in their right shoulders. That caused them to drop their daggers and collapse to the ground writhing in pain. A second later, I turned back towards the three men. I drew my third dagger.

The lead man lunged, and I parried his attack and struck with my dagger under his arm. I pushed forward, spinning around him, dropping to the ground under the second man’s attack, and stabbed that man in his foot. As he dropped forward, I pushed my shoulder up underneath his chin. His teeth hit hard with a loud clack and as he fell backwards, I sliced his wrist causing him to drop his sword.

The third man dropped his purse and ran, but the lead had regained his composure and slashed at my neck. I felt the blade skim my neck just as I dodged out of the way and threw my final dagger into the man’s sword hand. With his sword hand useless, he pulled away and backed up against a wall. Using my sword, I cut their purses from their belts and held my point against the lead man so I could retrieve my dagger.

Slipping the three purses onto my own belt, I pulled my daggers from the other two thug’s shoulders.

“Thanks for your business. Tell Canter, dawn at the docks tomorrow morning. I’m open to making a deal with him.”

I hurried back to my apartment and just managed to change when a knock sounded at my door. Drawing my dagger, I pried the door open a crack to see Celeste from the dress store. She was carrying several boxes.

“Come in.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You live here?”

“It’s temporary.”

“You’re bleeding.”

She pointed to my neck and I glanced in the mirror where I could see a light cut just below my left ear.

Grabbing a rag, I wiped the blood off and held it there to stop the flow.

“Thank you.”

Celeste hesitated as she spotted my sword leaning up against the wall.

“As you’re aware, it’s a rough neighborhood.”

She smiled weakly, looking quite nervous. “Mother and father made the adjustments for you and added a little something special. They also included gloves and laced matching boots. We’re very thankful for your business.”

I took the boxes from her and spotted one of the purses. I reached inside and pulled out a one-hundred silver coin. “Thank your parents very much for me.”

Celeste’s nervousness vanished, and she smiled and stepped out into the street. “If you ever need more dresses, you know where to come.”

***

I had spent hours on my hair trying to make it fancy like the court women did. I finally ended up with a silver hairpin that held my hair on my right side back and over my ear leaving my left side down to cover my cut. I tried hard not to smile when I put on the lavender gown, but it was truly magnificent and made me look stunning. The white laced boots fit perfectly and stretched up the length of my calves. My lavender gloves sparked with rhinestones as did the tightly cinched bodice of the dress. Finding a silver necklace and bracelet from my spoils, I put them on to complete my outfit.

I felt a little uneasy with only one dagger slipped into my boot, but I wasn’t expecting any problems. I pulled my gown up slightly as I made my way up the stairs to the ballroom entrance. A man in a formal suit greeted me at the top.

“Your name, my lady?”

“Camila.”

“Camila, what?”

“Just Camila.”

“Camila from where?”

“Camila from Riverden?”

The man’s frown spoke volumes. “Announcing Camila of Riverden.”

By this time of night few people paid attention to those arriving late like I was. This was my first ball as a woman and only the men would check to see if any single female newcomers were worth the bother of introducing themselves to. I was therefore stunned when men across the ballroom paused to stare at me. I even glanced over my shoulder to see who was coming next but there were no other women waiting.

Slowly as I stepped towards the dance floor, the room began to go back to normal. Several men asked me to dance and it was with reluctance that I accepted one. Prince Landon wasn’t in sight and this perturbed me, but what was even more frightening was the number of men targeting me for a dance and lining up to take me away from my current dance partner.

I had only spent a few minutes on the dance floor, grateful for my mother’s lessons where she did the leading, when my partner and I were interrupted.

My dance partner bowed and stepped aside. “My Prince.”

I looked up and into the eyes of Prince Landon as he slipped his hand around my waist. I immediately felt every dream over the past days come back fresh in my mind and I blushed at his touch.

People parted around us on the dance floor.

“You missed our allotted check-in time, Camila.”

“I was unavoidably detained, my Prince.”

“I understand a woman dressed in black has been leaving a bit of a trail of wounded men throughout the city.”

“I heard that as well.”

“I thought you didn’t have any money.”

“I’m merely redistributing the odd piece of silver I find on the streets.”

“That dress you’re wearing is no mere redistribution. There isn’t a woman in this place, dare say in all the realms more stunningly beautiful tonight. Tell me we won’t find a noble’s daughter naked in the street somewhere.”

I giggled. “I bought and paid for this dress myself. I’ve been working hard cleaning dishes, you see.”

“Cleaning dishes must be a dangerous job.” His fingers came to my neck and I inhaled deeply at his touch. “That appears to be a cut you are trying to cover up.”

“Must have been a piece of broken glass.”

Ignoring everyone around us, the prince took my hand in his and dragged me from the ballroom floor and into a private side room. With the door closed behind us, he turned to face me.

“I’m not sure this is a good idea, Camila.”

“By idea, you mean pulling a single woman through a room full of people into a private room?”

The prince put his hand to his head. “Oh God… I wasn’t thinking that through. Your presence confounds me and now I’ve tainted your reputation. We should go back before rumors get out of control.”

“Before we go back, was there something you wanted to say to me in private?”

“I made a mistake. I don’t like the idea of you in harm’s way.”

I looked into Landon’s eyes and felt a gentle tug on my heart and a not so gentle scream from my mind telling me who I was and reminding me of my new place in society. “Your father is no doubt grooming you for a future with Princess Faye. You have obligations as do I. Don’t worry for my safety. I will hopefully meet Canter tomorrow morning. I needed to do some risky things to build his interest in meeting me. After tomorrow, I’ll either be dead, or in his employ.”

Landon’s hand reached for my cheek then pulled away. “Don’t speak like that.”

“We should return to the ball before Princess Faye hears that you slipped into a private room with a scullery maid.”

“You will never be a scullery maid. For the first time in my life I’m actually questioning my role as prince.”

“You can’t think like that.”

I pulled on his arm to bring him back to the dance floor. Unfortunately, I had been correct in my assumptions. A well-known prince could not simply lead his dance partner into a private room without raising many eyebrows.

I leaned closer and whispered to him. “We will need more private quarters if I am to continue to give you my reports.”

All eyes were upon us.

I raised my voice so people around us could hear me. “It was such a pleasure having the chance to dance with you, Prince Landon. I’m sorry my shoe failed, and I twisted my ankle. You were so kind and honorable to take me where I could rest it. With your permission, I will take my leave.”

Landon stared at me with conflicted eyes. “Do you need a carriage?”

“I can manage, my Prince.” My last two words were barely audible.

I found myself biting my lower lip and a great sadness came over me as I curtsied and turned to walk away. I didn’t wish to leave his presence, but once again I reminded myself of my place. There was war coming and he would be required to form alliances. I had nothing to offer him. I walked away quickly and rushed from the ballroom.

I paused at the top of the outdoor stairs and leaned against the stone railing. I inhaled a deep breath of cool salty air trying hard to regain my composure.

“Who are you?”

I turned to see none other than the king of Riverden. I curtsied. “My name is Camila, my King.”

“You have created quite the stir. Do I, or should I know of you?”

“I’m sorry, my King. My ankle… The Prince was very kind. I’m no one of consequence.”

“Your ankle seems to have recovered remarkably well. Few women of no consequence could turn the head of my son and, might I add, the entire male population of the ball tonight.”

There was a short pause as the queen arrived and looked me over carefully. I curtsied once again.

“You remind me of the Queen of Blackfall, young lady.” There was kindness and thoughtfulness as she appraised me which is more than I could say about the king.

I was immediately reminded of the loss of my family.

“I’m so thankful for your kind and gracious hospitality and inviting all the citizens to such a wonderous ball. I’m very sorry if my stumble and your son’s consequential chivalry to see me taken care of has caused any problems. With your permission, I will withdraw and be on my way home.”

The king, if anything, didn’t soften his gaze but hardened it. “My son has many responsibilities and does not need any distractions. Stay away from him.”

The queen looked aghast.

The harshness of the king’s tone was enough for me to practically melt. I understood what he was doing, but once again I was reminded of my place in this new paradigm I was living. I was devastated but remembered my upbringing. I lifted my chin slightly, curtsied, and slipped away from them.

By the time I got back to my apartment I was in tears; unable to stop their flow.

***

I don’t ever recall having cried so much. I attributed this to my more fragile state as a woman, but I knew I was just making excuses. The truth was that I was heartbroken over the loss of my family and my life. I was also greatly saddened that the strange tug on my heart for Prince Landon would remain unfulfilled. I was at a complete loss as to what to do.

I even hesitated to change into my black outfit and make my way down to the docks, but I did anyways. I was given a job to do and I couldn’t just run from it. The walk in the pre-dawn morning light and cold air helped clear my mind.

With the sun now up and the docks stirring to life, it wasn’t long before I found myself surrounded by six burly men. For a moment I thought this might have been a setup, but they didn’t draw their weapons.

One man stepped forward towards me. “Based upon our previous encounters with you, we are taking all precautions, Ravenna. Canter has asked us to take you to him. Hand over your weapons.”

“That’s not going to happen. He’s worried I’m here to overthrow his rule. I have no desire to run the underworld of Riverden. I’m looking for work and as much fun as it is robbing all of you, I seek more lucrative endeavors.”

A heavy, ugly man pushed his way forward. “What’s to say you’re not here to assassinate him?”

“As I said, I’m here for work. It’s not likely I could find the type of work I’m looking for at the palace gates and assassinating Canter would only eliminate a good source of income for me.”

The man stared at me long and hard as if I was a piece of jewelry he was appraising. “I’ll take you to Canter.”

I followed the man through a vast warehouse and to a pair of double doors that looked rather plain from the outside. He opened them and we walked into a lavishly appointed apartment. Several scantily clad women got up from fur-covered couches and quickly attended the man. With a flick of his wrist, they vanished into other rooms.

“Take a seat, Ravenna.”

The man sat himself heavily down in a plush leather chair and across a large desk from me. The men in tow stood by to cover all the exits.

“Canter, I presume?”

He leaned back in his chair and eyed me intently. “At first, I laughed at the men that came to me telling me of a beautiful woman that stole from them. I punished them for lying to me. When story after story arrived, I realized their stories must have some thread of truth to them. They told me you were impressive in more ways than one and now I see what they were saying is true. You have taken things that belong to me, Ravenna, and I don’t take kindly to such actions.”

“I had to get your attention somehow. One simply doesn’t walk into this office uninvited.”

“I’m certain had you chosen to come here my men would have sent you straight in. You could earn a lot of money in one of my brothels.”

“Don’t tempt me to change my mind about assassination, Canter. I believe we could have a profitable partnership together.”

“What are you thinking?”

“I understand there are new, how should I say this, influences, in the Riverden underworld. They are sophisticated in their approach to systematically undermine you and disrupt your businesses and sources of income.”

“I could say the same of yourself. What do you propose?”

“That I act as your emissary. For a price, of course.”

“I’ve not seen you in action. You ask much.”

I tossed a heavy coin purse on his desk.

“That’s my…!”

“If I can get close enough to the leader of the thieves’ guild to steal your coin purse, how much more so can I take care of some insignificant and unskilled intruders?”

Canter stroked his chin. “There is a man that has set up a brothel in the old part of town. I will have my men show you the location. Deal with him and I will consider using you more in the future.”

“You expect me to do this for free?”

Canter weighed his coin purse in his hands. “You’ve already taken your fee.”

I smiled.

“Meet my men at the old town square four hours after dusk. Report your findings back to me here tomorrow.”

I stood and walked to the doors.

“Ravenna. You’re on very thin ice with me. Don’t cross me.”

I stepped through the doors and headed unhindered back to my apartment. In my role as prince I had known about such organizations but seeing them firsthand put a shiver down my spine. I quickly changed into a dress and put my hair up to pick up a few necessities.

My first stop was the dress shop.

“Camila! You’re the talk of the realm and thanks to you for wearing our dress, we have had many new enquiries.”

“What are you hearing, Celeste?”

“Some say all the men at the ball couldn’t take their eyes off you. Others suggested you caught the Prince’s eye. I even heard one woman suggest you might be the long-lost Princess Anna from Blackfall.”

“Princess Anna?”

“Certainly, you must have heard the tale of little seven-year-old Anna being kidnapped. That was thirteen years ago now. She had never been seen or heard from again and presumed murdered.”

“I’ve never heard that story.”

Celeste giggled. “Where have you been? Everyone knows this story. Growing up, all the girls used to play that we were the lost princess that would catch our handsome Prince Landon’s hand in marriage. Over the years there have even been some to claim the heritage but were always turned away as frauds.”

“That’s quite the story about the princess.”

“I’m sorry, I’ve been rambling. What can I help you with, my lady?”

“I need another dress. Something less formal and yet sexy.”

“Oh! You have a date with a special young man?”

“Not exactly. I’m going to a brothel tonight.”

The girl frowned. “You’re… no…”

“The dress needs to be maneuverable.”

“I don’t want to know the details… I just happen to have something that might… hmmm…”

***

I left the store and a frazzled distraught Celeste with two boxes and headed straight back to my apartment. I quickly changed into the sexy red dress that showed more skin than I would ever normally consider showing. I found only enough room to hide one dagger strapped to my upper thigh. It would have to do. The second box contained a red overcoat that I was about to put on when there was a strong knock on my door.

Grabbing my sword, I opened the door a crack to see Landon standing there.

“What are you doing here, my Prince?”

“Quickly, let me in the room. What are you wearing?”

I closed the door and turned to face Landon, suddenly embarrassed by my outfit. “Canter has given me a job.”

“Not in that outfit. I forbid it!”

I looked down to where his eyes were glued, my chest, and grabbed the overcoat to cover myself up. “It’s not what you think. Someone new has come into town and started up a brothel. I’m going there tonight to deal with the man.”

“You’re going in that?”

“This isn’t my first choice, but it will get me inside. I’m doing what you asked me to do. It’s possible this is a man from the northern alliance and I might be able to get useful information out of him. Why are you here?”

“I… I had to see you after last night. That should have never happened.”

“The ball? Our dance? What shouldn’t have happened?”

“You covered for me to protect me. I felt horrible afterwards. You didn’t have to do that.”

“Yes, I did.”

“I needed to see you.”

I pulled the overcoat a little tighter around myself. “I think you’ve seen about enough of me already.”

“No… Yes… Damn it!”

He threw his hands up and sat down on my bed.

“Ever since I met you, I can’t get you out of my head. I’ve been introduced to every eligible woman in most of the realms, and not one has done to me what you do.”

“Give you a headache?”

He sighed, and I moved over to him. I knelt at his feet and looked up into his eyes. My heart moved me.

“I’m no one, my Prince. I was reminded that very well last night. You don’t need the distraction. I’m pulling you away from your duty to your realm. I’m a criminal. Throw me in jail so you can forget about me.”

“What do you mean you were reminded last night. Surely, nothing I would have said…”

I grabbed for his hand and held it tight. “No… not you.” I stood and looked around my apartment. “I should leave here. No good will come of this.”

“Who?”

“I could run away to Shura. You can claim I escaped.”

“Who reminded you of your place?”

“It doesn’t matter, my Prince. He only spoke the truth.”

“Who is this man, so I can confront him!”

I shook my head. “It would only make things worse.”

“Camila, I won’t have you running away because of what someone has said.”

“It was your father, my Prince. He told me to never see you again.”

“He has no right!”

“He has every right.”

There was a long pause in the conversation. I hadn’t even realized it, but I had kept holding his hand and as he had stood, I pulled the back of his hand to my cheek as I wept. I had never wanted anything more in my life than this man. I pushed my conflicted thoughts aside while my heart and body pined for him.

“Why are you crying, Camila?”

I sniffed, stood, and pulled away quickly.

“My life will be masked by pain and sorrow… I see this now. You should go, my Prince, lest my curse be upon you as well.” I pointed to the door.

“What curse?”

“It doesn’t matter. Your father is right. I’m distracting you from what’s important.”

“I’m not leaving here until you tell me.”

I stared at him and wiped the tears from my eyes. I wanted nothing more than to be with him. An artifact of the spell no doubt to be forced into wanting something I could never have. It tore at my emotions.

“My enemy is Saromy. He called forth a demon to curse me before he threw me into a cage and dragged me here.”

“Saromy? Blackfall’s magician?”

I nodded.

“I don’t understand. Why would Saromy do this to you?”

“He believed I was a threat to him.”

“Are you?”

I shrugged, defeated. “Not anymore.”

“And the curse? What was that?”

“That my life would be masked by pain and sorrow. That my desires will be forever taken from me.”

“You desire me?”

I took a step away from him. “My humiliation is complete. Your father is right, my Prince. I plead with you. Release me from my debt so I can leave here.”

“I accepted your debt to keep you here. You’re mistaken if you think I’m going to let you go.”

“But Princess Faye… Your father…”

“Alliances and father be damned. I’ll renounce my position if need be.”

“You’re not thinking clearly, my Prince. If the northern realms are forging a path south to take over your lands, you will need an alliance. Blackfall is the logical choice because they are the largest realm, but Waredby will offer Riverden a highly strategic location to stage your armies. If you want to protect your citizens, stopping the northern realms at Waredby is the safest location.”

The prince stood and crossed the room to face me. “You’re everything I’ve ever wanted. You’re intelligent, wise about matters of state, a woman just at home in a formal gown as with a sword in her hand, and your beauty…”

“You would risk your citizen’s lives for me? I’m a woman of no heritage, no worth.”

The prince lifted my chin with his fingers to force me into looking into his eyes. “Tell me you feel nothing for me. Tell me you reject me.”

My lips quivered and I turned my face away from his. “I cannot. But I also cannot let you throw your life and your duty away for me. If all goes well, soon enough I will have taken enough gold from these ruthless criminals to leave here. Hopefully, as I perform these tasks for Canter, I will also find valuable information I can pass along to you. I beg you to forget about me. Assign one of your guards that I can relay information to. Once I am away from here, I will find a way to earn money and pay my debt to the King.”

Landon turned away and paced back and forth. “How dangerous will this be tonight?”

“I suspect this will not be without significant risk, my Prince. No newcomer looking to disrupt the Riverden underground would come without resources. I’m certain this is why Canter is sending me there. If I fail or succeed, at least one thorn is removed.”

“I don’t like it. I don’t like any of this. I plead with you, Camila. I release you from your debt. I will even give you enough money to get far away from here. I just can’t live with the burden that you might wind up dead or worse.”

“You forget, my Prince, that I have an enemy that I have sworn revenge upon. Even if you released me, I would still go tonight. If Saromy is in league with the northern realms, which I suspect, I might find a shred of evidence to implicate him. If I could find anything that could turn Blackfall against him before his plans are fulfilled, then that is the best outcome I can hope for.”

“Don’t you see the hypocrisy of your own words, Camila? You tell me not to throw away my life and yet you do the very same. You risk your life for revenge when you have everything to live for. In two weeks, my father is sending me to Waredby to formally introduce me to Princess Faye. In three days, I ask you to meet me in the Daleen Forest. Travel south from here for several hours until you come to the second river crossing. Cross the bridge, then take a small path upriver. After another hour, you will come to a forest meadow. Meet me there when the sun is at its zenith.”

“I will take extra precautions tonight, my Prince, for you have spoken the truth. I’ve been calloused with my life out of nothing more than a need for revenge.”

The prince hesitated a moment but turned to the door. “If nothing else, Camila, I have two weeks to try and convince my father that alliances can be formed without the need of marriage.”

With that said, he left. I moved to the door and placed my hand on the handle but forced myself to let it go. I slumped to the floor, once again in tears.

***

Except for the street lamps that barely illuminated the cobblestones, the night was moonless and dark. Fog had rolled in off the sea as I made my way to the rendezvous point. Two men slipped from the murky shadows.

“Come with us.”

One man led, and another followed. We turned down several side streets and finally stopped at an alley.

“Halfway down the alley is a door on the right.”

No more words were spoken as the two men left me alone. Landon’s words had rolled in my head all day. They taunted me. Is my pain and suffering caused by my continued focus on my anger and revenge?I hated what Saromy did to me, but, if anything, I could see potential for a life. Had I not been transformed, I would have been on my way to marrying Princess Faye. I would have continued to envy my brother and his freedom. Now, even though cursed, I could possibly live a decent life. The idea of living the rest of my life as a woman no longer bothered me.

I stepped over to the door and knocked lightly. A small window opened, and a man peered out.

“What do you want?”

I feigned fear and looked up and down the alley while pulling my cloak tighter around me. “I heard… I work for Canter… Things aren’t good there.”

His head came out further and he looked around carefully. “Get in.”

The door opened, and I slipped inside the building. I backed up against a wall and looked around. The place was shoddy looking, but even on a night like tonight, I could see business was brisk. The entryway had several dirty couches where older women sat in various stages of undress.

“Let’s see what you got.”

I looked into the eyes of the women and found them lifeless. There were three ruthless, large men that I could see but there must be more within the rooms.

“I… I think I made a mistake…” Reaching for the door, the man grabbed my wrist hard.

“Not so fast, girl.”

This man was very strong, and I could tell he was a fighter by his solid stance. He pinned my hand against the wall and pulled open my cloak.

I winced at his touch and shivered as the cool air touched my exposed skin.

“Eric! We have a new girl that has run away from Canter. I think Mr. Gallows would appreciate testing this one first.”

A second man came over and pulled open the other side of my cloak to further expose me. “And if he doesn’t, I will. Come with me, girl.”

Eric grabbed my wrist and pulled me down a hallway past a dozen small rooms to a set of stairs. At the top of the stairs, Eric knocked on a door.

A growling, muffled voice came through the door. “I’m busy!”

“Sorry to disturb you, boss. You want to see this.”

“This better be good!”

I heard shuffling, then the door opened suddenly. This man was huge; his eyes peeled my clothing from my body.

“Where did you find her?”

“She came to us. Boris said she worked for Canter.”

“What’s your name, girl?”

“A… Alisha. I think I made a mistake… I was told this establishment catered to…”

The man backhanded me across my face. It wasn’t a hard hit, but it was enough for him to show his dominance over me.

His large hand grabbed the back of my neck and pulled me inside.

“Guard the door. No one is to disturb us.”

“Yes, boss.”

The door closed ominously behind me as I took in the room. It was finely appointed, but nothing like Canter’s office. On the bed at the far end of the room, was a young girl, no more than thirteen or fourteen. Her face was bruised as were her arms and legs. She held a bedsheet over her naked body. My anger spiked at seeing her.

“Take off your cloak.”

I looked at the girl and saw her fear and sympathy for me. I slipped the cloak from my shoulders and let it fall to the ground.

The man smiled and leaned back against his desk. “You’re not like the others.”

“I… I catered to rich and powerful men.”

“As you will with me. Canter’s days are at an end and I can use a high-priced girl.”

“Take off your clothes and go to the bed. I’ll not sell merchandise I haven’t verified first.”

“Would you not want the full experience as to how I treat my men, so you could better gauge my value?”

“You’re a whore. All you do is lie on your back.”

“I am, but I would bet none of your ladies earn ten gold per night.”

“Ten gold?”

“I offer my men a fantasy. They are often greatly tired of their wives and I give them an escape. I serve him a meal, then show him what being a virile man is all about. I want my men to feel like I bask in their presence, that my touch is for them alone.”

“Skip the dinner part. Show me.”

I slowly stepped over to him and grabbed his vest. I pulled him towards me and raised up on my toes to bring my lips near his ear. I whispered to him.

“Mmmm. You’re such a strong man, Mr. Gallows. I can tell you’re a man that demands attention. I like that.”

His hands immediately went to my backside. I closed my eyes at his filthy touch and spun away from him smiling. I grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the bed before I let my fingers dance lightly across his chest. Moving behind him, I pressed my body up against him and slowly pulled his vest over his shoulders knowing this would restrict his arms.

“My God, Mr. Gallows. Your shoulders are huge and muscular. I can’t wait for you to take me.”

I felt him tense at my touch and my words. I carefully pulled my dagger, brought it up to his neck, and drew the blade across his jugular.

Blood spurted everywhere as his hands went to his throat. He tried to scream but only gurgling came forth. He slumped face-first onto the bed, spraying blood all over the girl. I rushed to her side to cover her mouth to keep her from screaming.

She suddenly threw her arms around me and shook like a frightened rabbit as the man’s lifeblood drained from him.

“Shhh… It’s all right. I’m going to get you out of here.”

I was operating on pure adrenaline. This was the first man I had ever killed, and I felt nausea threaten to overwhelm me.

Fighting the feeling, I held the girl’s hand in mine. “Listen to me. I need you to stay quiet.”

The girl nodded, but then reached for the man’s dagger and began striking him repeatedly with it.

I gently pried the dagger from her hands. “He’s dead and can no longer hurt you. I need you to get some clothes on. We’re going to make these people pay for what they did to you.”

The girl nodded as I cut the man’s coin purse from him and moved over to his desk. Quietly, I pulled open the drawers and pulled out letters and papers, slipping them into a burlap sack I found. I was about to get ready to leave, when the girl pointed to a painting on the wall.

Lifting the painting aside, I found a small alcove filled with three large bags of gold. I tied one to my waist and waved the girl over to me.

“Can you carry these?”

She nodded and after I tied them to her waist, I put on my cloak and grabbed the man’s sword.

“Stay behind me. We’re not out of this yet.”

The girl was clearly in shock but took a few steps back away from the door. I pulled it open and without hesitating thrust my sword into Eric’s chest. Eric’s shout was cut off as he slumped over, but his dead body rolled noisily down the stairs. Taking the girl’s hand in mine, I pulled her down after me and over Eric’s body. Boris and two other men were racing down the hallway towards us.

Letting go of the girl, I pulled my dagger and stepped into the hallway. Boris was an excellent fencer and it appeared the other two men were as well. The hallway hampered them and only one man could attack me at a time. Had I been pressed by all three at once, there would have been little chance I could survive.

Using my sword and dagger to maximum use, I parried Boris’ sword, ducked down, and sliced my dagger across his thigh. With a howl of pain, Boris rushed me, but I was ready for this. Using my dagger to block his sword’s thrust, he ran straight onto my sword’s point.

Yanking my sword free, I switched my sword to my left hand as the next man pushed his way forward. By now the brothel was filled with screaming women and unsavory men rushing out of rooms. One man ran out of his room so quickly, he bumped an oil lantern causing a fiery burst of flames to shoot across the hall. This separated the girl and me from the last man, but we still had one man in front of us.

Throwing my dagger, I clipped the man’s ear. He paused and brought his hand to his ear only to take it away covered in blood. His eyes hardened, and I knew I was in trouble and he roared in anger. His sword moved back and forth rapidly, and the force of his blows was staggering.

“Back up the stairs!”

I fought the man as I worked my way back to the room. Just as I got to the top of the stairs, the girl pulled me inside and slammed the door behind me, throwing the lock into place. The man crashed into the door, but it held.

A quick look around the smoke-filled room, showed us only one avenue of escape; a window by the bed. The wooden building was rapidly being engulfed in flames. Rushing to the window, I smashed the glass with the back of my sword and used a blanket wrapped around my hand to push the glass away.

The girl looked frightened as the flames burst all around us but when the man busted through the door with his sleeve on fire, she took my hand and we slipped out the window together. I tried to keep us from falling, but the wooden shingles below the window were slick from the fog. We both skidded along and over the edge of the roofline, landing hard on the cobblestones.

I was certain I had cracked a rib or two and took a long moment to gather my breath. I grimaced in pain as I sat up and found the girl unconscious next to me. She had hit her head on the stones, but she was breathing steady and didn’t appear to be too badly off.

The building was now fully ablaze, and I had to assume most everyone got out safely. That was all except for the three men I killed and likely the fourth man that had chased us up the stairs.

The girl moved next to me and I cradled her in my arms before helping her to her feet.

“Let’s get out of here.”

***

We made it back to my apartment and I tossed the bags of gold coins and the notes and letters on my table. Taking the girl over to my bed, I sat her down and filled a bowl with water. I returned to her with a cloth and slowly began cleaning her face and wounds.

“Thank you, my lady.”

“You’re safe here. What’s your name?”

“Isabel.”

I smiled. “Isabel is the name of my mother. I’m Camila. I’m sorry you had to see all of that.”

“They were horrible men, my lady. May the gods block their passage to the netherworld.”

I stroked her hair. She was pretty. I couldn’t imagine the abuse she had faced.

“Tell me about your family, Isabel. Do you have someone I can take you to?”

“No one, my lady. Those men… they… they killed my parents. That used to be our home. We ran it as an inn. They broke in and…”

She fell into my arms and sobbed. I held her close for many minutes until she began to settle.

“Lie down, Isabel. Try to get some sleep.”

She did, and I pulled a blanket up and over her. Getting up, I winced again and gingerly prodded my ribs. I removed my clothing and after examining my bruises I changed into a dress. I lit a lamp and set it on the table as I reviewed the documents I found.

Most were useless, but there was one that caught my eye.

‘Direct orders for advanced units:

You have been sent, supplied, and given orders from our great and glorious leader, Saromy. His decades-old plan to unite the realms under a single leader is on the verge of coming to fruition. Using the gold provided, you are to secure a mercenary force, disrupt trade, and seek to undermine the local controlling governments.

Our leaders will periodically inspect your mission, rewarding those units that have been successful and eliminating those that are not. We are at war. Give no quarter or mercy.’

I had hoped to believe all along that Saromy’s plans were limited to Blackfall and that what he had done to me was out of spite, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Mother and father were at risk and even if they no longer saw me as their own, I had to do something to warn them.

It was early morning before I drifted off into a fitful sleep.

***

I woke to the wondrous smells of smoked pork, eggs, and fresh bread. I was still sitting at the table, but my bed blanket had been put over me.

Isabel placed a plate of steaming food in front of me. “Good morning, my lady. I hope you don’t mind but I left early and purchased some food. I spent no more than a half silver on everything.”

I took a bite of the bread and almost swooned with delight. “This is fabulous, Isabel!”

“I baked them myself. My mom…” Isabel paused and gathered herself. “My mom and I used to cook for the patrons of the inn. It’s the least I can do for you, my lady. I would be forever grateful to serve you and cook and clean for you.”

Looking across the table, I could see the letters and notes were missing.

“Isabel… The note that was here. Where is it?”

“I used some of the notes to light the fire in the stove, my lady. The fire had gone out.”

I put my hands to my face.

“I’m very sorry, my lady. I didn’t think they were important as most were on the floor.”

I smiled weakly. “One was quite important, but it makes no sense for me to be upset about it. You didn’t know. I need to go meet someone. Will you be all right here alone?”

“Of course, my lady.”

“When I get back, I can take you shopping.”

“I’d like that very much, my lady.”

I moved some stray hairs from Isabel’s eyes. “Feel free to use the bath.”

I stood and pulled out my black clothes and Isabel’s eyes went wide. “You’re Ravenna. No wonder you were so strong and courageous. I heard those awful men talk about the beautiful but dangerous woman in black.”

“Obviously, I need to keep a lower profile.”

Slipping out of my dress, I winced again as my ribs shouted their objection.

“Let me help you, my lady.”

“Thank you, and please, call me Camila. I’m no lady of the court.”

“You will always be a lady to me, Camila.”

As my dress slipped to the floor, Isabel gasped and touched my birthmark before bowing low to me.

“What are you doing, Isabel? Please, stand up.”

“You’re the lost Princess Anna.”

“No, Isabel. There is no Princess Anna.”

“But your birthmark… Your beauty…”

“But nothing, Isabel.”

***

I hadn’t meant to be short with Isabel, but the implausibility of me being a lost princess made me question my own feelings on the matter. It felt like another Prince Landon scenario playing out through my curse. It was as if the smallest granule of hope I could muster would be crushed in the most painful of ways. It served me no good to contemplate what-ifs. I had been transformed into a woman, lost my family, and I would have to live with the curse the rest of my life.

My ribs ached as I made my way to the docks and to Canter’s warehouse. This time, there was no confrontation and the men simply let me in and granted me access to him.

“Come in, Ravenna. I’d hug you, but I’m not so sure I would appreciate pulling your dagger from my side. I thought I asked you to take care of their leader, not burn down half the city.”

“Things got a little out of control.”

“You appear unscathed. I’m impressed. You did an excellent job of getting rid of them. I’d like you to investigate another matter.”

“Investigate is a far cry from what you would like to have happen. Let’s not play with words. Who do you want eliminated?”

“Another group has come into the northern part of the city. A man named Riphus is hiring my thieves away.”

“I’ll look into it. It will cost you ten gold.”

“Ten gold? That’s robbery.”

“Each thief probably nets you half a gold per day. Assuming you’ve lost three thieves, you’re losing over ten gold per week plus the loss of your reputation. Ten gold is a bargain and you know it. It’s an excellent return on your investment.”

“I feel like I’m working with an accountant. Fine. Ten gold.”

“I’ll take my time on this one. No sense creating a show like I did last night.”

“Just let me know when it’s done.”

“Perhaps you can do something for me.”

“My bed is just in the next room. All right, all right. Just a little humor. Maybe I can recoup some of my money back that you have taken from me. What do you need?”

“I want your men to listen for anyone arriving from the north. The brothel was well funded and militaristic in how it was run. These are no mere criminals. I believe they are working to build mercenary armies to disrupt the city and make it more vulnerable to take over from the allied kings of the north.”

“What do I care if they do that? I only care if they take a cut of my pie.”

“You’re being short-sighted. Not every government will be as lenient on your organization as this one.”

“All right. I’ll put the word out. You say these men were well-funded? How do you know?”

“I saw their gold. Unfortunately, I was fighting for my life and the building was fully engulfed in fire for me to get close to it.”

“So, you say…”

***

“Camila! It’s always a pleasure to see you. How can I help you?”

“Good day, Celeste. I’d like three regular dresses and one formal dress for my friend here, Isabel. I also need traveling clothes and several more dresses for myself. Nothing too fancy, but I would like the travel clothes to turn a few heads.”

Isabel touched my hand and whispered to me. “It’s too much for me.”

“Nonsense. Every woman deserves some quality clothing. Besides, what if I had a chance to get you a job in the palace?”

“Me? In the palace?”

“Would you like that?”

“Would I ever! But what would I do?”

“I bet you could get a job as a cook. Your bread is the finest I’ve ever tasted.”

***

The next morning, I was greeted to more delicious food and Isabel had also gone back to the dress store to bring in several of her dresses and my travel clothes.

“Try this one on, Isabel.”

“It’s too beautiful.”

“And it will make you even more beautiful than you already are.”

Isabel held up the box towards me. “Take it back.”

“What’s wrong, Isabel?”

“If I’m beautiful, then I will be raped again.”

I took the dress from her hands and placed it on the table. “Come here, Isabel.”

She did, and I wrapped my arms around her. She was only six years younger than me, but I felt my motherly instincts kicking in.

“It’s going to be all right, Isabel. Am I your friend?”

“Yes.”

“As your friend, if anyone hurts you, they will deal with the sharp end of my sword. You must be able to move on with your life, put away your fears, and not let those that took from you keep you debilitated the rest of your life.”

“I will if you will.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re Princess Anna. You were kidnapped and perhaps you’ve lost your way, but you have a family that desperately sought you. Maybe you don’t remember who you were or what happened to you, but you owe it to yourself to go to Blackfall.”

“My story is a complicated one, Isabel. I’ll tell you what. You wear the dress for me while you’re here in this apartment to get used to it. I’ll teach you how to handle a dagger and you can always carry one to make sure you stay safe. Then, when you’re ready, I’ll take you to lunch at a fancy restaurant in the city where you can wear the dress in public. If you can do that for me, then I promise to one day return to Blackfall and find out if what you suspect is true.”

“All right. What if you find out you’re the lost Princess Anna?”

I smiled. “Then perhaps the King of Riverden wouldn’t be so angry with me.”

“The King is angry with you?”

“It’s a long story. I’m heading out for a bit. I’m going to see about buying a horse.”

“A horse?”

“I can’t get to Blackfall by foot.”

***

The next day, I donned my travel clothes and was impressed by how wonderful I looked. The cloak was heavy but would keep me from getting wet or cold. I wore a pair of leather riding boots, leggings under a heavy skirt, and a leather vest that covered my blouse.

I went to the stall where my horse and gear were being kept for me. After saddling my rusty-brown mare, I road south via the main road, over the bridge I never reached on my first day in Riverden, and onwards towards the second river. The day began misty and chilly, but once the sun burned off the mists and low clouds, it warmed up nicely. After the second river bridge, I spotted the trail that I followed upriver until I came to the most glorious forest glen I had ever seen.

I was just dismounting when Landon road up from the southern side of the glen. I was surprised he had no guards with him. He came close and I took hold of his stallion’s reigns as he dismounted.

I reached up and stroked the beautiful stallion’s face. “No funny business with my mare, you hear me?” The stallion snorted. “You owe me, traitorous horse.”

“His name is Bandit.”

I looked Landon’s horse in the eyes. “Yes… You’re a bandit all right.” The horse snorted again as if telling me he was innocent.

We tied off the horses and strolled side-by-side through the glen.

“You have a horse now, Camila?”

“Yes. She’s not as spritely as yours, but she is a good sturdy horse for the money. I have a favor to ask of you.”

“Anything.”

“I’ve taken in a young girl. She stays with me at my apartment. Her name is Isabel. I would ask that perhaps someone from the palace might interview her for a job. She’s an excellent cook.”

“I’ll do what I can. You’re taking in orphans now?”

“I found her at the brothel. She had been repeatedly raped by the leader. I had no heart to leave her there. I also have this…” I handed him a large, heavy coin purse. “There’s five hundred gold in there. I didn’t have it in me to totally pay off my debt.”

“Where could you have possibly found five hundred gold?”

“It was also at the brothel. They had this much and quite a bit more.”

Landon frowned. “It doesn’t make sense for a brothel to have this kind of money. Wait… That’s not the place that burned to the ground is it?”

“It wasn’t entirely my doing.”

“My God, Camila. You’re a one-woman army.”

Ignoring the jest, I placed my hand on his arm and stopped walking. “I also found a letter in their leader’s possession. Of course, you have no reason to believe me as the letter was destroyed, but the letter spoke of Saromy as the great and glorious leader of the north. It exposed a decades-old plot to unite all the realms under one single leader. The gold was paid to a unit of men to infiltrate the city, raise a mercenary army, disrupt trade, and, it is my guess, that they would either attack from within the city, or wait until the armies of Riverden moved north before sacking the city. It’s a brilliant plan in an evil way. Riverden sends its armies to face its adversary and a mercenary army loyal to the north cuts off all transport that would keep your armies fed and supplied.”

“I believe you, Camila.”

“It gets worse. I understand there is a second unit in the city. Canter wants me to investigate it as they have been bribing Canter’s thieves into joining them.”

“Your news is greatly disturbing. I have news of my own. I spoke with my father about you and he became very upset.”

“I’m not surprised. A wise person told me I must move on with my life and yet another, a very intelligent and handsome man told me I need to stop seeking revenge. I’m afraid my heart will stop beating if…”

I turned away quickly as I was unable to speak another word.

Landon’s strong arms turned me to face him. He cupped my face with his hands and kissed me.

I pushed him away. “You must not! A man is only as good as his faithfulness and loyalty. How can you possibly give of your heart to Princess Faye when you have soiled yourself with me?”

“You reject me?”

“Oh God, no! I cannot close my eyes without dreaming of your lips on mine.”

“Then nothing in this world will keep me from you. My father is sending me to Waredby early. He wants me to leave tomorrow.”

“You speak riddles to me. You say nothing can keep you from me but then say you are leaving to Waredby.”

“I must obey my father in leaving, but I won’t obey my father in marrying Princess Faye. I will convince Princess Faye my heart belongs to another. She has other suitors and all I need from her is a letter back to my father that she has rejected me. Without the option for that alliance through marriage, we will be forced to alternative negotiations.”

“Your father will see right through this.”

“How could he?”

“Because Princess Faye would be an utter fool to turn you away. You’re everything any woman could want and more.”

“Fifteen days, Camila. I can leave here and return in fifteen days. Mother has already told me she has a good feeling about you. Apparently, she shops for dresses where you do, and she’s been enquiring.”

Landon moved to kiss me again, but I placed my hand on his chest. “I will quench myself of your lips the day you tell me I can be yours forever, but not before. I’m afraid if I touch you, I wouldn’t be able to live from the pain of loss should you not be allowed to be with me.”

“I’ll return in fifteen days, Camila.” He handed me back the gold. “Until then, you can’t leave town until you fully paid off your debt. I’m even considering lowering your salary to one copper a month.”

“That’s all I’m worth to you?”

“If it keeps you within my grasp forever, then absolutely.”

***

I waited patiently for an hour as I let Landon go first. I wanted nothing to suggest that we had been together. My heart pounded in my chest as he mounted and left. That I loved him was beyond any doubt in my mind, even though it seemed sudden and foolish.

It was dark when I finally arrived back in my apartment and grateful that Isabel had cooked dinner.

“I spoke with someone from the palace today, Isabel. They told me they will try to arrange an interview for you.”

“Who do you know at the palace, Camila?”

“Some things are best left unsaid. Listen, Isabel. If something were to happen to me, promise me you will stay here and protect our things. No matter what happens, I will always return even if it takes a little extra time.”

“Of course, I promise. Why would you say… Now I understand about all the secrecy. You’re that Camila! I saw your lavender dress. Does he know who you really are?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know who I really am, Isabel.”

“You went to see the Prince…”

“Hush… Please don’t speak a word to anyone.”

“You’re glowing…”

“Time for bed, young lady.”

***

I woke with a smile on my face and ran my fingers lightly over my lips. My male ego had long been erased and the touch of Landon’s lips against mine would be something I would never forget.

This morning, I would take Isabel shopping in the northern part of the city. She even agreed to wear her new dress outside as long as I was there to protect her. My goal was to start asking around for Riphus and try to discover his routine.

We were about to leave when I heard a commotion down the street from us. I stepped out into the street and walked down towards the intersection. Palace guards were moving from house to house looking for someone. I was just turning back when one of the guards pointed at me and shouted.

Looking back to my apartment door, I could see Isabel standing there. I waved her back inside and mouthed for her to hide. I was relieved when the door closed but by then I was surrounded by no less than ten guards.

“You’re to come with us, Camila.”

“Where are you taking me?”

“To the King.”

I didn’t struggle as my hands were tightly bound and I was closely escorted to the palace. The guards didn’t even stop on the way into the throne room. The king looked none too pleased as he stared down at me.

“Do you know my son came to speak to me about you the other day?”

“How would I know that, my King?”

“Don’t lie to me, wench! Landon has a good head on his shoulders and not taken to flights of fancy. I told you to stay away from him. Are you a witch that you have beguiled him?”

“No, my King.”

“I raised him better than to waste his loins on the likes of you. You are hereby sentenced to two years in prison for the crime of treason.”

“Treason? Only a weak and emasculated king would impose such an unprovable sentence! You’re a disgrace to royalty.”

“Get her out of my sight!”

The guards dragged me through the palace hallways and down into the dungeon. There they held me down as they searched and found my two daggers before tossing me into a dark, filthy cage. Only a small barred window high above my head offered a hint of fresh air.

***

A week had passed, and I stopped worrying for myself and began to worry for Isabel. I hoped she remained safe and comfortable.

“Psst… Camila?”

I looked up to the small window to see Isabel’s face pressed against the bars.

“Isabel?”

“I’m so glad I finally found you. I’m going to rescue you.”

“Rescue me? How?”

“I’ve got a plan.”

“Don’t risk yourself, Isabel. Take the money and buy an estate somewhere.”

“It’s your money and I’m not leaving without you. I’ve got to go.”

***

Every day for the next week Isabel would come and drop bread for me through the bars. While the extra sustenance was helpful, I found myself growing weaker as the cold stones pulled my life from me bit by bit. On the fifteenth day, she never showed up.

***

A knock sounded at Isabel’s apartment door.

“Camila?”

It was a man’s voice. Isabel grabbed her dagger and held it up to face the door.

“Camila doesn’t live here. Go away!”

“Isabel? Is that you?”

Isabel frowned and opened the door a crack and brandished her dagger at the man. “How do you know my name?”

“I’m a friend of Camila’s. I’m from the palace.”

“Nobody at the palace is Camila’s friend!”

“Isabel, please. I’m here to see Camila.”

“Come in and close the door. Don’t make any sudden moves or I’ll run you through. You look like a despicable type.”

When the man stepped inside and pulled off his travel worn and dirty cloak, she gasped and bowed. “You’re… My Prince.”

“So much for arriving here under cover of night.”

Isabel recovered and narrowed her eyes. She held up the dagger again. “Are you here to finally return Camila to me?”

“What do you mean, return?”

“Don’t lie to me! I don’t care if you’re the Prince. You know she’s locked up in your fetid dungeon.”

“What?”

“Fifteen days ago, the guards took her to the palace. I hunted for her for days to find her chained to a wall in the palace dungeon. She told me she was imprisoned by the King for treason. Her, of all people! You all don’t even know who she is and when the truth be told, you’ll rue the very day you were born.”

Landon walked in tight circles. “Isabel, you must believe me in that I had no part of this. I love Camila. I want to marry her. What do you mean we don’t know who she is?”

“She’s Princess Anna, you fool! Even though she doesn’t believe it herself. She’s the right age, has the right looks, and has the birthmark.”

“God! You’re so right, Isabel! I’m a fool to have not guessed that. Are you safe, Isabel?”

Isabel rolled her eyes. “I’m the one with the knife. Gods… are all royalty so dense?”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, Isabel. Stay put. I’m going to get Camila.”

“Slap that stupid father of yours while you’re at it. Camila’s an angel.”

“I agree with you.”

Landon tossed on his cloak and rushed back outside.

***

I shivered on the cold stone floor. My fears that Isabel had tried to do something and got caught had kept me awake all night. I felt, in some way, like I had come full circle. I was back in a cage for no wrong doing of my own.

I had cried a great deal, but tears began to fall once again.

Suddenly the dungeon was thrown into complete chaos. People were screaming and banging on doors. The only thing I could wish for was that the palace was on fire and soon my troubles would be no more.

But such was not the case.

“Get Camila out of there this instance or I will have your skin stripped from your body!”

It’s Landon and he’s pissed!

“But, my Prince. This is upon the King’s orders.”

“Unlock her cage or I will run you through.”

I heard the rasping of metal in a scabbard.

“Yes, my Prince!”

Looking up, I could see the guard at the cage door and him fumbling with the key.

“Move aside!”

As soon as the door opened, I was in Landon’s embrace.

“Camila! I’m so sorry.” He turned his head back to the guard. “Get that chain off her ankle!” I felt hands on my ankle and as soon as my foot was free, I was lifted into his arms.

He carried me up through the palace pausing once in the hallway when a woman’s voice sounded.

“I had no idea you were back, my son. What are you doing with that girl?”

Landon turned to face his mother.

“As if you didn’t know, mother!”

“That’s… Camila. What happened to her?”

“She has been in our dungeon for the past fifteen days!”

“Oh, Camila. I’m so sorry. I had no idea. Take her to my rooms, Landon.”

Landon tensed his jaw. “I’m not leaving her side.”

“Quickly, son. Follow me.”

Once we stepped inside the queen’s chambers, the queen took control and ordered a dozen servants to perform many different tasks. Landon placed me gently down on a couch.

I weakly touched his face. “Your father isn’t too pleased with me.”

“I’m here now, Camila. I’m never leaving you again.”

“Isabel?”

“She’s fine.”

I smiled weakly. The queen covered me with a blanket just as the king barged through the door. He walked straight up to Landon.

“How dare you defy me and threaten our own guards!”

“What have you done, father? You charged Camila with treason and threw her in our dungeon? This is the woman that I love and will marry even if it means I resign my position.”

“You are to marry Princess Faye and not this filthy girl!”

“If you weren’t my father and King, I would hit you for slandering Camila like that.”

“I told her to stay away from you and she hasn’t!”

“Camila was in my employ, father. I ordered her to meet me against your wishes. Where do you think I was getting intelligence on the criminal underground of the city and of the northern alliance’s plans to infiltrate our city? It was Camila. As for Princess Faye, by the time I had arrived, she had already accepted Prince Phillip of Blackfall as her suitor.”

The king frowned but was clearly still angry. “Perhaps I was a bit hasty in my decisions, son, but she is a commoner and I can’t let you marry her.”

“Camila protected me when I lost my mind and took her into a private room at the ball. She has been nothing but honorable regarding her own position and mine. Commoner or not, you do her a great injustice.”

The queen stepped between them and placed her hand on the king’s arm. “Richard, ever since the ball, I’ve been asking about Camila with the shop owners in town. They adore her. She gives the businesses more than they ask for and reimburses them when they are robbed. If this is the woman our son chooses, then I stand behind their marriage.”

The king’s stance softened slightly.

Landon continued to defend me.

“There’s more, father. It makes no difference to me whether Camila has any heritage, family, or noble blood, for she is more noble than the likes of us.” He turned to me and knelt at my side. “Forgive me, Camila.” His hands reached for my shoulder and pulled the edge of my soiled dress down exposing my birthmark. The queen gasped, and the king took a shaky step back.

The queen came to my side and gently stroked my face. “I see it now… You reminded me of your mother. For me, the mark is confirmation. You’re none other than the lost Princess Anna.”

“No…” My voice cracked. “The curse…”

The queen looked to her husband. “In the past week, the city has been filled with rumors that the lost Princess was locked in our dungeon.”

I smiled. “Isabel…”

The queen stood. “If what we suspect is true then we have an obligation to safely bring Camila to Blackfall. It will be up to Isabel and Edward Sutton to determine the validity of who Camila is.”

The king tipped his head and silently slipped from the room.

Landon cupped my face and kissed me. “I’m so sorry, Camila. I love you and, with your permission, I would like to marry you.”

“I might need some food, rest, and a change of clothes before that can happen. I love you too.”

“That’s it then. Landon, I know you want to be here, but I’ll stay with Camila until she is fed and cleaned up.”

“Isabel… Can you bring her, my Prince?”

Landon looked to his mom and back to me. “Rest up. I’ll be back with Isabel if she doesn’t gut me with a dagger first.”

I had one last kiss from him before he stood and faced his mother. “Take good care of her. I’ll be back right away.”

“I’ll take care of her as if she were my own daughter.”

***

A small army of servants fed me, bathed me, and dressed me in a fine golden dress. As before with my being caged experience, I was still weak and depleted, but I was on my feet and feeling much better.

Once the queen had pronounced me acceptable, the doors were opened, and a bouncing Isabel ran in and hugged me tightly.

“It’s so good to see you, Isabel. I hope you were all right.”

“Better than you. You look much better than the last time I saw you. Can you believe I’m in the palace?”

“I think the palace is quite suitable for such a charming young woman like yourself.”

Landon entered and kissed me so passionately, I thought I might pass out.

Isabel clapped her hands together. “I knew it!”

I leaned into him and held his hand. “There’s no squad of guards waiting to take me to prison is there?”

“No. But father would like to ask you some questions.”

“I’m not afraid of questions. Prison cells, yes.”

I turned back to face the queen. I took her hands in mine. “Thank you.”

“I’ve not met many people that would be acting so kind and gracious as you after having been treated so poorly.”

“I’m not happy it happened, but I’m grateful it’s over. I understand the King needs to protect the citizens of the realm and his son’s heart.”

Isabel took one hand and Landon took my other one as he led us through the palace and to the throne room. A table had been set up.

The king looked slightly agitated but also somewhat sheepish. “Please, sit down, all of you.”

Once seated, the king invited in the realm’s magician. He introduced him as Malcom.

“I’ve asked Malcom to meet with us to validate magical claims you may make. Landon has spoken to me about a curse and I want to know more about this. First, I have a hard time believing you could be Princess Anna without any knowledge of it yourself.”

“I’ll tell you as much as I possibly can.”

Arthur was long gone, and history had been erased. It would sound completely fictitious to even mention my real name or gender since, in their history, Arthur never existed. I decided I would tell my tale without sharing everything.

“I grew up as the firstborn daughter of Isabel and Edward. This will sound strange to you all, but it’s not for me. I was their daughter, but my name wasn’t Anna. To this day, I can’t speak my original name.”

Everyone gave me stunned and disbelieving looks.

“Please, bear with me. I was taught to fight by the Captain of our Guard, Evan, and my father. I was trained and schooled all my life in the ways of the court to one day reign as Queen of Blackfall. Two months ago, in my own paradigm and history as it is known to me, I was as you see me now; twenty years old and living in the palace in Blackfall. I was walking through the palace halls when Saromy, our realm’s magician, found me and urgently called me to his chambers on word that something had happened to my father. When I followed Saromy into his rooms, I stepped into a magically inscribed circle on the floor. Try as I might, I couldn’t move and even my dagger couldn’t penetrate the edge of the circle.”

Malcom shifted in his seat. “I’ve heard of such dark magic before.”

“I was trapped and Saromy shared his desire to rule but indicated this might be done through my younger brother, Phillip. Saromy wanted me out of the way. He cast a second circle on the floor, one that touched mine.”

“Magical barriers are common. Continue.”

“He called forth a servant of the darkness. A fiery demon arose from the floor and it was very angry with Saromy, but it was trapped and forced to do his bidding.”

“Only once have I seen such a major demon summoned. Demons are unpredictable, and this is why dark magic is banned from our class.”

“Saromy then began casting a curse. These were his words. I will replace my real name with one I can speak. Alisha. You will irrevocably be changed forever. You will remember who you were, but to all, it will be as if Alisha was never born alive. Your rare and exceptional beauty will be masked by pain and death. History will be rewritten. Alisha will be no more. Camila will be your name. After that, he released the demon to fulfill his curse upon me by removing the magical seal between the demon’s circle and my own. I woke days later, chained inside a darkened caged carriage, unable to speak my old name. I had effectively been erased from history.”

Landon took my hand in his. “That’s when I first found you? Right after you were released from the carriage?”

“Yes.”

“That’s why you knew so much about the courts and how you learned to fight.”

The king looked at me and frowned. “Malcom, tell me this is rubbish.”

“Not so, my King. If Saromy had control of a very powerful demon, history could easily have been rewritten. Let’s take a few minutes to examine the curse but understand the demon only had to fulfill the curse to the exact nature of the words, not Saromy’s intent. I’ll use the name Camila offered, Alisha to explain. Saromy wished to erase Alisha entirely and make her into someone new that remembered who they were. The demon chose to rewrite history to its own liking. To the world, Alisha became Anna, kidnapped at the age of seven and thought lost forever. It was as if Alisha had never been born alive. It explains why Camila has no knowledge of her kidnapping because for her, it never happened.”

The king groaned slightly. “How is this possible that the entire world’s history changed and none of us would know any different?”

“Like the laws of gravity, magic also has laws. One law of magic is that a spell or curse will naturally be fulfilled using the least power possible. The demon was forced to comply but did so with two thoughts; conserve power and inflict damage upon the one that held the demon captive. Erasing Alisha forever would require altering memories and events from Alisha’s birth until present of every person that knew of or met Alisha. By effectively replacing Alisha with Anna at birth and then introducing a single event thirteen years ago, the kidnapping and loss of Anna, the power used to fulfill the curse would be magnitudes less. It also provides a way to seek revenge upon the caster by not fulfilling the caster’s intent and leaving a chance in the future to see Alisha return as Anna to ruin Saromy’s plans.”

The king leaned back in his chair. “This is confusing. What about the section that Camila’s beauty will be masked by pain and death?”

Isabel smiled. “I know the answer to that one. Camila is Ravenna. She masked her identity to infiltrate the criminal underground. You should have seen her fight and kill those monsters in the brothel, but it wasn’t without pain.”

“I know this all sounds impossible, but it’s the truth. When I first heard about the lost Princess Anna, I laughed. For me, there was never a Princess Anna. Then when more things came to light, I refused to believe the stories because I felt it was part of the curse to forever take away that which I loved; my family…” I looked at Landon. “…and my love. I thought the curse was designed to make my life as painful as possible and remove me from Blackfall so that I could watch Phillip to become a puppet king of Saromy. As recent events have come to light, I believe Saromy wants to control all the realms, but needed Blackfall out of the way. I fear for my family, yet they don’t even know I exist.”

Malcom stood. “There’s nothing not to believe. I could prove it if I found Saromy’s journals and your doctors could prove your heritage from the Suttons. The mistake Saromy made was not being exacting in his words for the curse.”

The king stood as well. “I offer you my apology, Camila. However, you still might not be Princess Anna.”

“I’m all right if I’m not, but I would love to see Saromy’s face if my mother and father recognized me. I want to be there to see his downfall.”

“Then I suggest you travel to Blackfall.”

“I can’t just yet, my King. I found a document that implicated Saromy’s involvement with the northern alliance. Unfortunately, that document was destroyed. There is another alliance unit that has been infiltrating the northern part of Riverden. Their leader’s name is Riphus. If we can flush him out, we might be able to thwart the north’s plans for Riverden and possibly discover more details on Saromy’s plan.”

“Where do you start?”

“I need to account for my absence to Canter, then I need to find out where Riphus is holding up.”

Landon turned to his father. “I’m going with her.”

“Only with guards.”

“Agreed. One more thing, father. I’d like to announce my intent to marry Camila.”

“And if she turns out to be a simple commoner?”

“My love is blind, father. I would be just as happy.”

The king frowned.

Isabel interrupted the conversation. “Think of it this way… If Camila really is Princess Anna, just think how perfect that would be…” Isabel paused as if realizing who she was speaking to. “…my King.”

Landon smiled. “Isabel is right, father. We both know what an alliance with Blackfall would do for our realms.”

The king sighed and pointed a finger at Isabel. “This is all your fault.” Turning to a guard that was in the room, he gave the man an order. “Release the communications that my son is set to marry Camila. Suggest nothing of what was spoken here today or that Camila might be the lost Princess Anna.”

Everyone left leaving Isabel, Landon, and me alone in the throne room.

“Do you really think we will get in front of Canter with guards, my Prince?”

“I’ve got you, Camila. You’re the only guard I need.”

I smiled and kissed him. “By the way, I accept your offer of marriage even if I should have made you grovel as your proposal lacked certain protocol, romance, and charm.”

“I’ll just have to make it up to you.” With that said, he swept me into his arms and kissed me.

Isabel covered her eyes. “You two should get a room.”

***

It had been difficult extracting myself from Landon’s arms long enough to take Isabel back to my apartment for the night.

Morning had come all too soon as I needed the additional rest to recover from my ordeal in the dungeon. Isabel had awakened me with more of her delectable food.

After I changed, I hugged her tight. “I want you to know, Isabel, that wherever I go, you will always have a home with me. I’ll also need a maid of honor for my wedding.”

“Really?”

“You’ll have to wear a beautiful gown in front of thousands of people though.”

“I’m over that already. I wear my dagger everywhere I go, and I had to look presentable when I was spreading rumors about you. Maybe if you teach me and I get good enough I could take up your alias as Ravenna one day.”

“I’m not sure I want you a part of that world, but the world could always use another strong female fighter. We can’t let the men have all the fun, now can we?”

“Nope!”

“This morning I’m going to the docks with the Prince.”

“He’s going to stick out like a white cow in a black barn.”

I laughed. “I do believe, you’re correct. When I get back, we would like to take you shopping.”

“More shopping?”

“We need some travel clothes for you. You’re coming with us to Blackfall.”

“You mean I get to ride a horse and eat in inns along the way?”

“Of course!”

“I can see it now… Another round of ale!”

“Uhmmm. No. No ale for you, young lady.”

Isabel pouted. “Fine… I’ll go even without the ale.”

I hugged her tightly just as a knock sounded at the door.

Opening the door, I smiled as Landon pushed his way in and into my arms. He kicked the door closed with his boot.

“Our marriage announcement has gone out.”

“And women’s hearts are breaking all over the world.”

He pushed my back up against the wall and kissed me. “That black outfit you’re wearing really shows off your figure…”

“Enough already…” Isabel squeezed in between us and held up a piece of her warm bread. Landon took it and bit into it.

“This is wonderful, Isabel.”

“I’ll have to keep a fresh batch ready every time you two get together. I swear if I wasn’t here, you both would succumb to each other’s charms and wind up in bed. Someone has to keep an eye on you two until the wedding and keep you from falling into temptation.”

Landon laughed. “I’ll be fifty pounds heavier by the wedding then.”

I leaned down and kissed Isabel on the top of her head. “Thanks for protecting me from this man’s evil clutches. Stay put. We’ll be back soon.”

Isabel rolled her eyes. “As if you wanted protection from him.”

Landon and I slipped out into the street and made our way down towards the docks. I kept glancing at him and started laughing.

“What?”

“White cow…”

“That makes no sense at all, Camila… I mean, Ravenna.”

“Isabel told me you will stick out like a white cow in a black barn in these seedy parts of town.”

“I’ll have you know I was quite the rebellious child growing up. White cow, indeed. I’ll blend in like a white rabbit in the snow.”

I giggled. “Brown snow maybe.”

Once we were at the docks, we had only taken a few steps towards the warehouse when we were surrounded by men. One man stepped forward.

“What were you thinking bringing the Prince here, Ravenna?”

“Send a runner to Canter. Tell him we both would like to speak with him. We’ll make it worth his while.”

We waited about five minutes until a man ran back towards us. “Let them proceed.”

I took Landon to Canter’s office.

“Thanks for seeing us, Canter.”

“I was wondering what happened to you, Ravenna.” He looked dubiously at Landon. “You have some interesting friends. Perhaps I should start calling you Princess Camila.”

“Camila is fine. I didn’t think it would take you long to figure that out anyways.”

Canter chuckled. “I heard the news that the King threw you in prison, and now suddenly you’re marrying the Prince. God only knows I could use a woman with your talents of persuasion in the palace. You’ve both come to shut me down?”

I placed a hand on the prince’s wrist. “You’re quite the businessman, Canter. While we don’t necessarily agree with your methods, we also can’t deny you provide for some people that would otherwise be unemployable. You do the city both a service and a disservice. Perhaps we could come to a mutually beneficial agreement in the future, but, for now, we want to help you deal with the men coming from the north.”

“There are more problems than just them bribing my thieves, Camila. There is a contract out for your head. My men have overheard conversations that a new group of men have arrived and they’re looking for a girl named Camila.”

Landon tensed. “That makes no sense. Why would they want Camila dead? I should take you back into the protective custody of the palace.”

“Are these new men working with the northern group bribing your thieves, Canter?”

“They are.”

“Then I might just be the bait we need to expose them.”

Canter sat and indicated we should as well. “Why did you really first come to me, Camila?”

“Do you like games, Canter?”

“I play games every day. I’m playing one even now.”

“There is a game being played on a massive scale. A man from Blackfall named Saromy appears to be coordinating the efforts of the northern alliance and I believe he is the mastermind behind these groups of men disrupting your business. Early on in this game, he made a move against me and I was unprepared. I came to you because I needed to discover what his game is so that when I make my next move, he will fall.”

“You’ve made your first mistake, Camila. Being engaged to the Prince has made you visible and will turn you into a public figure. That said, I have seen your handiwork and I have no desire to be your opponent in this game you play.”

Landon stood and paced back and forth a bit. “How large has this group become?”

“They have quickly become a formidable force. So much so that I’m concerned for my holdings and that my men might not be able to defeat them.”

“Then work with us to rout the northern group infiltrating your area.”

“As I have told Camila before, I’m not concerned about the war with the north. By working with the guards, I’m making a statement that I’m aligning myself with them.”

I stood and moved next to Landon. “Then I suggest you begin packing your things, Canter. New information has come to light that Saromy will take over your business lines to fund his machine of war. I’m only interested in finding the information that will expose Saromy for who and what he is. I can do that without you, but you would still be at the mercy of his men and you will miss out on an excellent opportunity to be in favor with the future King of Riverden.”

“King and Queen.” Landon added.

Landon and I turned to leave and got to the door before Canter stopped us.

“What did you have in mind?”

***

We made a few tentative plans with Canter and headed back towards the apartment.

“You were impressive with Canter, Camila. Can you enlighten me about the new information on how Saromy is funding his war by using the criminal underground?”

“There is no new information. I’ve been thinking about this for some time and wondering how Saromy was getting his money. I made it up to sound real and to scare Canter into believing this war would take away his income.”

“We don’t need him. We have Riverden’s full military to use.”

“Canter and his men know about things happening in the city long before the palace ever will. The underground has people everywhere and have learned to hide from city officials. Once the military is involved, the criminal factions will go into hiding, only to resurface once we leave. Canter’s men will root out all of the northern alliance leaving the city safe to proceed to war if necessary.”

“You’re brilliant, Camila. How come you don’t want him to call you princess?”

“Being a princess comes with all kinds of responsibilities. Until you marry me, and your father truly accepts me as a member of your family, or my parents in Blackfall recognize me, I’m happy being plain old Camila. I used to envy my younger brother Phillip as he had much more free time on his hands.”

“You just wait. I’ve got all kinds of plans to keep you busy.”

“I hope some of those plans include a bed.”

“Where is Isabel’s bread when I need it?” Landon sighed. “I can’t get out of my head what Canter said about men looking for you. It makes no sense that Saromy would ship you here after rewriting history, only to send people to kill you.”

“I don’t understand his motives either. He should have killed me outright, but I believe he wanted me helpless when he took control of Blackfall.”

“So, if we think this through, Saromy believed the demon fulfilled his curse only to discover after he sent you away that you now exist as Princess Anna and could still thwart his plans.”

“We could ask Malcom if history could have been rewritten had I been dead.”

“Either way, I don’t like it and I don’t want to see you used as bait.”

“You have given me everything to live for and I’m in no hurry to die. What you did today by coming alone with me to the docks is unheard of. A prince should have his guards around him as would a princess. I can’t hide myself away. As much as I like my freedom, we should be protected by a small contingent of guards as would be customary. This will lure the northern alliance into pulling a larger force together if they wish to kill me and these actions will play more into our hands for defeating them.”

“You’re willing to be my princess then?”

“I’ll be anything you want me to be. Your cook, your scullery maid, and if I have to be, your princess.”

Landon paused as we walked and reached for my hair. “I can’t believe you’re mine. You’re everything and more than I could have ever wished for.”

“You must not have had very high standards then.”

“Quite the contrary, my Princess. About the guards, you’re correct. If you were unguarded, it would appear like a trap. We need to follow protocol, and this means that I need you and Isabel to move into the palace.”

I smiled. “I could use a slightly larger bed. It’s a little uncomfortable with both Isabel and me. You might have to sleep on the floor though.”

“My mother would have my hide if I stayed the night in your room.”

I snuggled up to him. “She would never have to find out.”

“You’re a temptress. You know darn well we have rooms for our royal guests.”

I giggled.

***

The rest of the morning was spent getting Isabel and me moved into the palace guest room. As we were just finishing up, the queen knocked and entered our rooms.

Isabel and I curtsied. “My Queen.”

The queen hugged me. “You’re a member of this household now and a future member of our family. I sincerely believe you are the lost Princess Anna, but until this is proven or until you’re married to Landon, you will be considered the Royal Fiancé of Prince Landon. Most people in town will call you Highness. To show the staff and the citizens your status, the King and I would like to give you something.”

She held up a platinum, diamond-studded circlet to wear across my forehead. She slipped the circlet into my hair and I glanced at it in the mirror. It was beautiful.

“I’m greatly honored, my Queen.”

“I understand Landon is waiting for you both in the courtyard, your Highness.”

“Thank you, my Queen.”

Isabel slipped her hand into mine as the queen left. “I’m living in the palace with the lost Princess Anna, and the future Princess and Queen of Riverden and Blackfall. How cool is that?”

“It will get boring soon enough.”

“Not a chance!”

“Come on, Isabel. Let’s not keep the Prince waiting.”

Isabel spun for me in her dress and curtsied. “As you wish, your Highness.” She then burst out laughing.

When we arrived at the courtyard, Landon was there along with a small group of six guards. Somehow, he had managed to get my mare to the palace and found a smaller horse for Isabel.

Landon helped me up into the saddle then did the same for Isabel before mounting his own horse. Knowing we would likely be travelling to the shops by horse, I had chosen a beautiful dress, boots, and gloves that were designed for riding. Isabel’s dress, however, was a little bunched up at the front and her legs showed more than they should.

“Where to first, your Highness?”

“The dress shop. I need to purchase a few more clothes for Isabel.”

We rode forth into the city. I had almost forgotten how people used to stare at me as prince when I rode by, but now they were staring at me and ignoring their own prince. We stopped and dismounted in front of the dress shop and Isabel and I stepped inside while Landon and the guards waited outside.

“Camila! I’m so sorry…” She curtsied to me. “Your Highness and Isabel. It is an honor to have you both back at our store.”

“Word travels fast, Celeste.”

“When rumors were spread that the lost Princess Anna had been found and locked in the dungeons, and then you never came by for many days… Are you…?”

Isabel smiled. “Of course, she is.”

I stroked Isabel’s hair. “That’s yet to be determined, Isabel. It is why we’re here today, Celeste. I need a riding dress and travel outfit for Isabel. We will be leaving soon for Blackfall.”

“I always knew there was something special about you, your Highness.”

“Even when I bought the red dress?”

“I’m certain our handsome Prince will enjoy it. I should be able to have these ready for Isabel by tomorrow. We just need to make a few adjustments for her. Shall I deliver them to your apartment?”

“We’re staying at the palace now, Celeste.”

“Oh! Of course, your Highness. When will the engagement ball be held?”

“It will have to wait until we return from Blackfall.”

“That could be months. The people of Riverden are clamoring for a glimpse of you.”

“As much as I would like to speed things along, there are some unfortunate happenings that must be dealt with. When the time comes, perhaps your parents would honor me by making my wedding gown.”

“As always, we are very grateful for your business and faith in us.”

I turned to go and spotted a new spectacular dress in the window. It was dark violet and would be perfect for turning Landon’s head.

“If it’s not too much trouble, could you have that dress adjusted for me?” I placed two gold coins in front of her. “Will that cover everything?”

“It’s too much, your Highness.”

“Then keep the change as a down payment for my wedding dress. Thank you, Celeste.”

“Thank you, your Highness.”

By the time we stepped out of the shop a large crowd had gathered. People were shouting Camila, Princess Anna, and your Highness. The guards were looking nervous and shuffled me over to my horse and helped me up. Minutes later, we were back at the palace safe and sound.

***

The next week was a busy one. Landon and I rode into the northern part of town every day. We would stop for lunch at a small café and then return to the palace. Canter’s men were stationed around the café and today we finally received word from Canter that the northern alliance was making plans to attack us.

This was what we were waiting for. The army was sent south of the city, only to circle around and back towards the north. Canter’s men were positioning themselves throughout the northern part of the city.

While all this was taking place, I was meeting frequently with the queen to make plans for the wedding and I was giving Isabel lessons on dagger fighting and horseback riding.

With the anticipation that tomorrow or the day following, an attack would be made on my life, Landon invited me to a special dinner inside the palace grotto. This was a place where thermal hot springs warmed the ground and lush gardens surrounded a pool of hot water. Even the coldest of nights were warm there.

When I finished getting ready, Isabel whistled. “That’s the new dress from the shop. Are you trying to kill the Prince?”

“Why would you say that, Isabel?”

“Because his heart is going to stop when he sees you. I’ve never seen any woman as beautiful as you.”

I smiled. “My idea for this dress was to make sure the Prince noticed me, but there’s no room for a dagger.”

“He would have to be dead not to notice you. Maybe I should come along to protect you.”

“I should be fine.”

“I don’t like it when you two are alone and unchaperoned.”

“You sound like my mother. Don’t worry, I’m certain there will be others around to protect my vanity.”

“You honestly wouldn’t even know I’m there.”

I kissed Isabel on her forehead and headed for the door. “Don’t wait up for me tonight.”

“Now I’m seriously going to sneak in there.”

“Good night, Isabel.”

I closed the door behind me and walked towards the grotto. As I moved through a hallway, the king stepped out of a side room.

I curtsied to him. “My King.”

The king smiled and tipped his head. “Your Highness. Where are you headed?”

“To the grotto to meet your dashing son for dinner.”

“Let me escort you there.” He held out his arm and I slipped mine around his. “I’ve been receiving updates on your plans, Camila. I must say that I have reservations about your safety. I’ve never seen Landon so happy. I’ve never seen my entire staff and my own wife so happy. Even if you aren’t the lost Princess Anna, I would be remiss in saying I was wrong about you. I have done much that I must apologize for and I beg your forgiveness. You’re a wonderful young woman and it is a shame the citizens of Riverden won’t know the risk you are putting yourself in for them.”

“I’m touched, my King, and, for what it’s worth, I forgive you and I understand.”

We came to a door and the king stepped back to look me over. “You look stunning tonight, your Highness. There isn’t a more beautiful, regal woman in all the realms. I couldn’t be happier for you both.”

With that he tipped his head and headed back down the hall.

I took a deep breath and pushed open the door to the grotto. I stepped inside to a fantasy world of flowers, crystal clear steaming pools of water, and candles everywhere. Landon stood looking exceptionally handsome in his finest clothes.

“I’m unworthy of you, my Princess. If my life were to end in this moment, I would know, without a doubt, that I had seen the most beautiful sight this world had to offer.”

“I’m the unworthy one, my Prince. For it was you that took notice of me, the lowliest of thieves, wearing nothing but filthy rags, and elevated me to the highest position in the realm a woman could achieve. I knew from the moment I sought your help at the edge of the pond that I would live my life unfulfilled without you.”

The distance between us was an unfathomable gulf and we met each other in the middle. Landon’s hands cupped my face and kissed me. Never in my life, or lives, had I experienced such purpose and passion.

Landon dropped to one knee and took my hand in his. “You would do me an incredible honor to be my wife. I’m asking for your hand in marriage knowing not what lies ahead but having experienced what little time we’ve had with each other that I am certain I cannot live without you. Whether you are an exceptionally uncommon commoner or thief, or the future Queen of Blackfall matters not to me. I promise with all my heart to protect you and yours. Would you take me as your husband?”

I looked around the grotto and at the stunning diamond ring he had slipped on my finger before focusing my eyes on his. “This certainly makes up for the rushed bedside proposal, not that you needed all of this to win my heart that has already been given to you. I willingly accept your proposal for marriage and how could I possibly go wrong with such a handsome, caring man as my husband. Prince Landon of Riverden, I pledge my heart and body to you and you alone.”

I felt the ring slide further up my finger until it stopped, and I pulled him up to face me. My arms wrapped around his neck and I pressed my body up against his as I kissed him.

I smiled as I pulled back a little. “You do know that if my father acknowledges me, then he might have other plans to marry me off to someone else.”

Landon was about to respond when a guard came through the door of the grotto. “I’m very sorry to interrupt you, my Prince. A messenger has arrived from Blackfall. The King of Blackfall has become seriously ill. They’re making plans for Phillip to be crowned the new King.”

Landon frowned and gently squeezed my hand. “When would the coronation take place?”

“In four weeks. There is a pre-coronation ball happening three weeks from now. You have an invitation awaiting you.”

The guard bowed and stepped out as the prince turned to me.

“This changes everything.”

I hastily wiped tears from my cheeks. “This is Saromy’s doing. Father… I’m so sorry.”

***

Landon forced me into taking time to eat a wonderful dinner in the grotto even though my heart was conflicted. We decided upon a plan, but timing all hinged upon the northern alliance and when they might attack. If no attack occurred in the next two days, we would leave for Blackfall on the third leaving the city guards and the military to root out the alliance.

Through the night and into the next morning, my mood had been somber as I thought about Saromy causing an illness on my father. Even though that pressed upon my mind, we rode out from the palace at our usual time. The café we would go to was in an open square but as we approached the square carriages pulled up blocking the end of our street.

We quickly turned to see more carriages moving into place to block our retreat. We were now effectively penned in with little maneuverability on a small street.

Windows flew open and men with swords spilled into the street through street-level doors. Sliding off my horse, I drew my sword from my saddle. The guards were already engaged with their weapons, but I spotted archers come to the second story windows.

Landon yelled. “Fire the signal!”

He was still on his horse, but I grabbed his arm and pulled him off just as an arrow flew where he had been a moment before. Looking behind me, I spotted a doorway with steps leading to the rooms where archers were.

“I’ll take care of the archers on this side!”

I didn’t wait for his approval as I dove through the door and raced up the stairs. Two men armed with swords waited there protecting the archers in the rooms on either side. This was all out war and these people were trying to kill us. Slipping my dagger into my left hand, I blocked a vicious thrust with my sword and stabbed the man in his side with my dagger. As he fell to the side, I sliced my sword through his throat before reaching the landing at the top of the stairs. The second man was warier and yelled for help.

We fought back and forth, and I was slowly tearing ribbons from him when for a brief second his eyes shifted from mine. I flung myself flat against the wall just as an arrow flew by and straight into the man I had been fighting. Spinning around, I spotted the archer that had come up behind me and I pressed him back into his room. I fought quickly, giving no quarter and soon the man was lying dead at my feet.

I ran back out of the room and straight into the room on the far side of the stairs. An archer leaned out of a window and was shooting towards our men. His focus was in front of him and with a quick slice across his hamstring and a dagger to his side, he slumped over.

Making sure I was safe, I grabbed his bow and arrows and shot the archers directly across the street from me before heading back down the stairs to the street below. What I found was utter chaos. The northern alliance still outnumbered us, but the army had finally arrived from the north and struggled with removing the carriages in their way as alliance fighters had placed wooden blocks under the wheels on our side.

A quick glance showed Landon was holding his own. I grabbed bandit’s saddle and mounted the massive stallion and fought from his back until I came upon the fighters nearest the carriages. Bandit was a true war horse and was trained for battle. He never shied from the men and raised himself up to use his hooves to strike at them. Our attack had surprised the alliance fighters holding the carriages and with a few more thrusts, the last of their men were down. I slipped from the saddle and pulled the wooden blocks away.

The carriages were quickly pushed aside as the army poured into the street. Four men immediately surrounded me to protect me.

“We’ll take you to safety, your Highness.”

“We need every man fighting their way to the other end of the street. The Prince needs your help.”

“We have orders to protect you.”

I smiled. “Then you’ll just have to keep up.”

I bolted away from them and spun and cut my way through the alliance fighters towards Landon. By the time I reached his side, the carriages had been removed from the other end of the street and the alliance was in full retreat.

Landon’s hand came to my cheek. “You’re unharmed?”

“Just a few bruises. Nothing more. You?”

“I’m fine thanks to your quick reactions.”

Canter arrived. “My Prince. Camila. The alliance fighters are pulling back into the side streets and alleys, but my men our waiting for them. I believe we may have discovered where Riphus is holding up.”

Landon placed his hand on Canter’s shoulder. “Lead us to him.”

Canter led us through the square and down a side street. We stopped at an intersection as he pointed to a building not far from us.

“We’ve seen Riphus frequently enter this building, but these are no mere street rats that are working for him. They are well organized, and we believe they also might control the building directly across from them as well.”

Strategically, I could see why Riphus would have chosen this location. “They probably have archers watching from the windows then.”

The Riverden army commanders stepped forward. “We’ll take it from here, my Prince and your Highness. This is what we do. There’s no sense either of you risking yourselves further at this point. No offense your Highness, as I’ve had the honor of seeing you fight. I’ll send a team into the building across the way first. We can access it from the back and once it is secured, we will move in on Riphus.”

We all agreed with the plan and it was the longest thirty minutes of my life sitting back and waiting as sounds of fighting broke out. When the commander finally returned to us, I was anxious for news.

“The buildings are secured, and we have captured Riphus. You can enter now, my Prince.”

Signs of a heavy fight were everywhere throughout the building. We found Riphus upstairs in a well-appointed apartment.

I quickly surveyed the room and it didn’t reveal any hidden alcoves of money. “Commander?”

“Yes, your Highness?”

“Do you have some men to spare to search the building? I have reason to believe we will find a stash of gold.”

“Right away, your Highness.”

I ignored Riphus as he strained against his bindings as I walked past him to the desk in his room. Landon paused in front of the man. I could hear their conversation as I rifled through drawers.

“Your men are defeated, Riphus. It will go easier on you if you are truthful with me. Who do you work for?”

“You get nothing from me. The northern alliance will sweep through this region and I look forward to the day when our glorious leader spits on your graves.”

“Your men were sent to kill my fiancé. I want to know why.”

“Give her to me for a night and I will consider telling you.”

I heard the crunch of the man’s jaw from across the room. Riphus spit out a bloody tooth and glared at Landon.

“I’ve found what I need over here, my Prince. I have several documents with orders from Saromy as well as copies of my own bounty. It’s time we wrap this up and get on the road to Blackfall.”

Riphus sneered. “That notice went to all our units, girl. You’ll never make it to Blackfall as every mercenary between here and there is looking for you.”

Pulling my dagger from my thigh, I threw it at the man. The dagger wedged itself into the wood of the chair an inch away from the man’s neck. I moved close to the man and pulled my dagger from the chair.

“If I wanted you dead, you would be. Let those loyal to Saromy come after me as there will be fewer scum in this world when this is all over.”

One of the men from the army came forward. “We found a stash of both gold and weapons, my Prince.”

“Good work. Collect it all and bring it to the palace. Commander, I will leave you in control of wrapping this mission up.”

***

Due to the nature of the assassination attempt, Landon and I had quite a healthy-sized escort back to the palace. The king, queen, and Isabel were anxiously awaiting our return.

The king looked over Landon and the queen and Isabel checked me over carefully.

Landon hugged his father. “We’re both fine, father. We were, however, ill prepared for the size and sophistication of their attack. If it hadn’t been for the quick actions of Camila, things would have gone far worse.”

I produced the documents I had found in Riphus’ desk and handed them to the king. “You’ll find several confirmations in there.”

The king held one up. “They put a bounty on your head of five hundred gold.”

“I don’t think Saromy likes me much.”

“Father, with the pending coronation of Phillip, I need to get Camila to Blackfall as quickly as possible.”

The king frowned as he looked at the bounty document. “We will send twenty guards with you.”

“After today and seeing this bounty on Camila’s head, I wouldn’t hesitate. Unfortunately, I believe we need to move quickly. With twenty men, we will travel far slower. I’d like to take four of our best men. This way we can stay at inns rather than camping and carrying gear.”

“I’m tempted to go with you, but after the insurgents’ attack, we need to regroup and seal our realm. Everyone coming to into the realm will need to be searched. I’ll get this organized.”

I watched as Landon and the king laid out their plans. Their relationship reminded me of what I had with my father. Glancing down past my breasts and to my blood-splattered clothes, I began to fear the reaction of my parents, my brother, and to some degree, Saromy.

By the time I looked up, the king and queen had left.

“You were unusually quiet, Camila. Is something wrong?”

“Your parents love you very much, my Prince.”

“You’re worried about how your parents will react to seeing you.”

“You’ve not known me long, but you can so easily read my mind. I had what you have with your parents taken from me. My parents will only remember a seven-year-old girl.”

“History may have been changed, Camila, but not your parent’s hearts. They tore the realms apart for years looking for you. Why do you think all the young women used to play being the lost Princess Anna?”

I shook my head.

“The story of Princess Anna is a story of lost love. The people of the realms were greatly touched and moved by your parent’s loss and their desperate search for you. What young woman wouldn’t wish for that kind of devotion and love your parents exhibited? Saromy may have tried to erase you from history, but he inadvertently made you the most famous person the world has ever known. Such was and is the love your parents have for you.”

Isabel sniffed at my side. “I would give anything to have a chance to see my parents again. You hesitate because of your loss, but your parents are still alive. You deserve to have your family back and even more so to take down Saromy.”

“You’re right, Isabel. It’s difficult for me to imagine what it will be like for them and for me. In some ways I feel a little afraid of the outcome. We need to finish our preparations as tomorrow morning we head to Blackfall.”

***

We had travelled quickly for a week and luckily had not encountered any problems. Isabel was doing well after her backside got used to so many hours in the saddle. Each night we stopped at an inn and I would share a room with Isabel while Landon had a room to himself and the guards shared a common space.

Tonight, we had stopped off at the Ascar Lodge in Ushana. We were all weary as we sat down for dinner.

When the waitress came over, I ordered a round of stew, bread, and ale for everyone.

Isabel beamed and suddenly sat up. “Ale for me?”

“Just a little bit. It will help you relax so you sleep well tonight.”

Landon sat down next to me and the guards sat across from us.

“At this pace, we are a week from Blackfall. I recommend we travel straight to the palace and get you before the Queen.”

“I’ve been thinking about this. It might be safer for everyone to send one of the guards with a message to the Queen. She could meet us away from the palace at a more private location. If, by chance, Saromy sees me, he could discredit us before we even get a chance to meet them. Who knows just how many followers he might have in the palace.”

“I think this is a wise plan, Camila.”

Our ale came, and Isabel looked at me and smiled before taking a large sip from her mug. Her smile faltered. “It’s bitter!”

Landon laughed. “You’ll get used to it.”

Isabel squirmed in her seat a little. “This isn’t anything like I expected. My butt is sore, I’m stiff all over, the food is greasy, the ale is bitter, and I was hoping to see at least one inn fight.”

I leaned over and hugged Isabel. “Travel is never easy, Isabel.”

“Adventure… I wanted adventure. See the world; listen to bards sing merry tales of death and destruction.”

“Maybe one day they will sing tales about Isabel’s journey to Blackfall.”

Isabel took another sip of her ale and scrunched her nose before pushing it away. “I’m sure such a song would either become a lullaby to put babies to sleep, or a form of torture for prisoners. This ale is horrible.”

“We’re just over halfway there. Things might get more interesting.”

Landon chuckled. “We might even get a plate of potatoes at our next stop, Isabel.”

Isabel lightly bumped her head on the table. “That will be the highlight of the trip.”

***

We had just retired to our rooms for the evening and Isabel and I were getting settled when our door crashed inward. Four men rushed in with swords drawn. Isabel screamed and pulled her dagger and held it shaking in her hand towards the men. I had drawn my sword and dagger, but I was concerned about Isabel on the far side of the bed from me.

“Ignore the girl. Kill this one.”

They all turned towards me and I was quickly engaged in a fight for my life. As soon as I parried one thrust, another was right there. My dagger and sword were moving so quickly that for a moment we were at a stalemate, but I wasn’t hurting them, and I wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer. I could feel myself slowing down and I felt a wave of nausea hit me hard.

Suddenly, one of my attackers cried out in pain. Isabel had crept around and stabbed the man with her dagger. In horror, I watched the man falter and then raise his sword to deliver a death blow to Isabel. I dove forward just in time to block the man’s swing, but I had left myself exposed and I felt cold steel slice through my side.

Ignoring the pain, blood, and another strong wave of dizziness, I backed Isabel and myself into a corner. Fortunately, the act of protecting Isabel put me in a better position with the attackers, but I was losing blood and getting weaker by the second.

What had felt like hours since the men burst into the room, was probably only minutes. I managed to bring one man down when Landon and the guards crashed into the men from behind. Moments later the fight was over, but the damage was done. I slumped against the wall and dropped my weapons, too weak to even hold them any longer.

Isabel was crying, and I saw a worried and blurry face of Landon before I slipped into unconsciousness.

***

I was hot and feverish, and my world was spinning. I was in a bed, but I had no idea where I was. I rolled over, screamed in pain, and threw up. Other than the pain, my dizziness receded. I felt a cold cloth put on my forehead and I turned back and opened my eyes. Isabel was looking disheveled, worn, and worried. Another glance around the room and I saw Landon crawling over towards me and four guards not looking well as they draped themselves over chairs.

My lips were dry, and my throat was parched.

Isabel wiped my face with the cloth. “I’m glad you threw up, Camila. The ale was poisoned. I got the innkeeper to fetch a doctor. He came and stitched your wound and bandaged you.”

I smiled weakly and raised my hand to Isabel’s face. “Thank… you. You’re… all right?”

“I’m fine thanks to you. I only had a little sickness since I had so little ale.”

By now Landon had reached my side and I could tell he was weak, but uninjured. “The guards and I were overcome with the poison, but when the fighting started, we managed to get to you in time. Isabel has taken good care of us. How are you, my love?”

I was still feverish, but the nausea had greatly diminished. I tried to sit up, but my side hurt like hell. “I’ve been better, but I’ll recover.”

Landon kissed my forehead and stood shaking to his feet. I watched as he woke the guards. “On your feet, men. I know you’ve all felt better, but we need to secure this room and I want the doctor back here right away.”

They groaned and held their heads. I pulled Isabel into the bed next to me. “You need rest, Isabel.”

In moments we were both asleep.

***

I woke feeling much better. The room smelled clean and fresh air was coming in from the window. I winced as I sat up. Landon was resting peacefully in a chair nearby and the room was otherwise empty. A glass of water was on a stand next to me and I eagerly reached for it and took a deep drink to ease my dry throat.

I sat up slowly and swung my legs over the edge of the bed. My underdress was torn, stained, and had blood on it. I stumbled slightly getting to my feet and that caused Landon to wake. He was immediately at my side.

“Camila!”

His lips found mine.

“Mmmm. Your mother won’t be pleased to hear you slept in my room. You know the bed is large enough for both of us.”

“You’re getting better because you’re joking again.” He sniffed my hair. “You really need a bath.”

I snuggled close to him. “I need you more.”

The door opened, and Isabel came in with plates of food and fresh bread.

“Just in the nick of time, I see. I leave for a few hours to make you breakfast, and this is what I come back to.” Isabel placed the food on a table, grabbed a piece of bread, and held it up to Landon.

We all laughed.

I stroked Isabel’s hair. “I don’t think you have to worry much about us this morning, Isabel. The Prince hasn’t bathed in days and he’s pretty smelly.”

“I’m the smelly one? You’re the one standing in an underdress with a sword hole in it, covered in blood, and you have stains from your vomit.”

Isabel held up a plate of food for the prince and opened the door. “Out you get. Camila needs to get cleaned up.”

Landon paused and looked back at me. “I could help.”

Isabel stomped her foot and pointed towards the door. “Out!”

He laughed. “All right, all right. I’ll get myself cleaned up and order the guards to prepare for our departure tomorrow.”

Once the door closed, Isabel ran into my arms and hugged me. “That was too close, Camila. I don’t ever want to lose you.”

I smiled and ignored the pain in my side. “I’ll be more careful from here on out. You cooked all of this?”

“I’m not letting anyone else feed you from this place.”

“I guess you got your wish for some adventure.”

“Adventure is overrated.”

***

By the next morning we were back on the road. I had discovered that we had lost three days and with my wound, we would need to slow down our travel.

We had several small incidents along the way, but our guards were able to quickly dispatch any attackers without me even needing to lift my sword.

It had been a long arduous trip and we arrived in Blackfall on the eve of the coronation ball. As we entered the city and moved towards the palace, I found myself getting pensive.

“You’re biting your lower lip, Camila. What’s wrong? I thought you would be relieved to arrive home.”

“So much has happened, my Prince. This was my home for my entire life, and yet everyone here doesn’t remember who I was. What should feel like coming home and being a joyous occasion is marred by my sense of loss.”

“No matter what happens, you will always have a home with me.”

“And I will feel at home wherever you are. It’s just sad. All the memories and experiences with my family and friends here are gone for them.”

“You’re young. You can make new memories.”

“If I could have stopped Saromy from erasing me from history, I’m not sure I would have liked the outcome of my life. I would have been a different person and might never have met you or Isabel. I don’t believe things could be undone without more life-altering loss. What Saromy meant for ill, I believe is a blessing to me.”

“Has your goal changed since I first met you?”

“Yes. My only desire was to see Saromy reverse what he had done to me and pay for his crimes. Now I just want to see justice served. He has committed high treason against all the realms.”

“Don’t forget he is responsible for many murders as well as multiple attempts on your life.”

“I don’t see this ending without my sword at Saromy’s throat.”

“We should discuss what our plans are.”

I sighed. “There’s no guarantee I will be able to get close to the Queen. I suggest we divide and conquer. You enter the ball as you are, and I can arrive a little while later as Camila from Riverden. We can work our way around to try to reach the Queen.”

“I don’t like arriving without you on my arm as my betrothed.”

“It will only raise more questions, my love. As your fiancé my dance options will be limited, and this will reduce our chances at getting word to my mother. I think it best for my mother to first see me for who I am before we add the news that we’re getting married.”

Landon looked up towards the palace. “Looks like the ball has already started. You’re right, Camila. We need as much opportunity as we can to get you before the Queen.”

We arrived at the palace entrance and guards stepped forward to confirm Landon’s identity. Our guards were shown to separate quarters and the three of us were escorted into the palace guest rooms.

It felt so strange to be back but not have my own room to go to. I even recognized most of the staff. We were given a large suite with three bedrooms and we all hurried to unpack our things and get cleaned up. My wound was mostly healed, but I still needed bandages to protect my clothes from any weeping.

Isabel would stay in the rooms while Landon and I went to the ball. I was wearing my lavender dress and Isabel made a few quick adjustments for me when the Prince came out of his room looking exceptionally handsome.

“You’re wearing that dress, Camila?”

“Is there something wrong with it?”

“I’ll never get close to you if I want a dance.”

I snuggled up to him and kissed him. “I’ll always make time for you.”

“Maybe we should skip the ball…”

Isabel squeezed in between us. “Scoot… The sooner we get this over with and Camila is recognized as the lost Princess Anna, you two can be married, and I can start living my life instead of being a chaperone all the time.”

“You’re adorable, Isabel. Thank you.”

Landon leaned over Isabel and kissed me. “I’ll see you out there. Don’t make me wait too long.”

After he left, Isabel and I sat down together.

“I wish I could go to the ball with you, Camila.”

“There’s no guarantee that I won’t be thrown into prison as a fraud, Isabel. Also, Saromy knows me as me. He would be expected to be at the ball and in either case, I want you safe. If things go well, then you’re welcome to attend every ball I’m ever invited to.”

Isabel started counting on her fingers. “As Princess of Blackfall and Riverden, that’s over twelve balls per year.”

I smiled and stroked Isabel’s hair. “I guess we’ll need to shop more often. Will you be all right here by yourself?”

“I’m going to take a long bath and try to get my butt back down from my shoulders. How do people travel like that?”

I laughed. “We could use a comfortable carriage next time.”

Isabel became quiet. “You’re not going to forget about me, are you?”

“Why would you say that? I could never forget about you, Isabel.”

“It’s just that once you’re a princess, I’ll still be a nobody.”

“You’ll never be a nobody, Isabel. You’re my best friend.”

***

I stepped up to the announcer and looked passed him into the grand ball room of the palace. I spotted Landon moving through the crowd and frowned as women seemed very interested in him.

“My lady. How should I introduce you?”

“Camila of Riverden.”

As before at my last ball, the man frowned and turned to the guests on the ballroom floor. “Announcing, Camila of Riverden.”

The men all turned to look at me and many conversations stopped mid-sentence. This time I didn’t look over my shoulder, but the feeling of being inadequate was ever present. Landon was moving on the left side of the ballroom and I saw him smile at me and tip his head. I walked down the steps towards the right side.

I didn’t get more than two steps on the floor before men came over to me asking for a dance. I accepted the first offer and moved out into the dance area.

“You look lovely tonight. I don’t recall ever seeing you at a ball before. You were announced as being from Riverden?”

I knew the man I was dancing with. He was a friend of my father’s from Torport. “Thank you. Yes. You’re King Justin from Torport. It’s quite an honor dancing with you. You’re offer has saved me from many single men’s clutches tonight.”

He smiled. “I’m afraid I can’t save you for long. I must leave early to return home as there are many pressing matters I must attend to.”

“Let me guess. You have a mercenary army being created in your realm.”

He cocked his head. “How would you know this if you are from Riverden?”

“We just quelled such an army ourselves. Can you tell me how King Edward is?”

“It is a terrible shame. None of the doctors seem to be able to do anything for him. I saw him this morning. He is bed ridden and weak, but still is cogent in his communications.”

“May I cut in?”

I glanced at Landon as he stood patiently next to us.

King Justin outstretched his hand to Landon. “Well met, Prince Landon. She is all yours.” The King turned to me. “The pleasure was all mine.”

I curtsied. “Thank you for the dance.”

I gasped slightly as Landon pulled me to him. “I’ll never get over how I feel when I’m in your arms.”

“You do know how to make an entrance, my love. I couldn’t tear my eyes off you.”

“Not even for the dazzling beauties waiting breathlessly for you to ask them to dance?”

“There were breathless, dazzling beauties? I didn’t see any but you.”

“Good answer. Have you heard anything yet? I haven’t seen Saromy, the Queen, or Phillip.”

“I’ve seen Phillip. He was working his way this direction.”

“The King is in bad health, but he is still lucid. We got here in time.”

“Excuse me…”

The man’s voice chilled me to the bone. Landon tensed.

“I have some news for Camila. If you don’t mind, Prince Landon.”

I held Landon’s hand to keep him from grabbing his dagger. I leaned in. “Not here. This is what he wants. Stay close. I’ll be all right.”

“I’ll be right over here, Camila.”

Saromy bowed slightly before holding up his hands. Hesitantly, I took them.

“You have a lot to answer for, Saromy.”

“Is that any way to greet the realm’s magician? You shouldn’t have come here, Camila.”

“What have you done to my father?”

“Nothing that can’t be undone. It’s your life for your family’s. Phillip, Isabel, and Edward will all perish if you don’t leave right now.”

“You dare threaten me, Saromy? After all you’ve taken from me?”

“You are, if nothing else, predictable. Leave now and I will spare your life as well.”

“I’ll…”

“Such a beautiful lady… I would be remiss if I didn’t have at least one dance with you.”

Saromy looked over his shoulder at Phillip. There was a moment of hatred that flashed in his eyes. “Of course, my Prince. I think I will retire for a bit.”

With one last look at me that could kill, Saromy stepped back, and Phillip bowed to me.

“You would do me a great honor to dance with me.”

It was such a strange feeling to look at my brother knowing he didn’t know who I was. I curtsied. “The honor will be mine, Prince Phillip.”

He took my hand and people ever so slightly moved away from us to give us room.

“Do I know you?”

“That depends, my Prince. I certainly know of you.”

He smiled. “I’ve seen you before. I’m certain of it. Where are you from?”

“I arrived from Riverden. I’m very sorry to hear about your father being ill.”

“Thank you for that. He’s a good man.”

“And you, my Prince? How do you feel about becoming King of Blackfall?”

“I do what I must.”

“And what of Isabel, your mother? How is she handling the situation here?”

Phillip paused and pulled back as he stared at me. “Who are you? I’m certain I know you.”

I glanced over his shoulder to see Landon standing there. I bit my lower lip. “I’m Anna… your sister.”

“Anna? But Anna…” He stared at me a long time. “Anna… Is it really you?” Tears came to his eyes as he raised his hand to immediately bring two guards to his side. “Find the Queen. Bring her to the side chamber immediately.”

“Yes, my Prince.”

Phillip grabbed my hand. “Come with me.”

I held back. “Please. Let Prince Landon come with us. He’s very important to me.”

Phillip looked back at Landon and waved him forward before pulling me through the crowd and into a side room.

The guards had just arrived with my mother as we closed the door behind us.

My mother began asking Phillip what was so urgent when her eyes met mine. She stared at me for only a few moments when she broke down in tears and pulled me into her arms.

“My daughter! My precious, Anna!”

I held her tightly and wept. We wept for many minutes until she pulled herself away long enough to stare into my eyes and brush a few strands of hair from my eyes.

“I’m not dreaming? It’s really you?”

“Yes, mother.”

“Where were you? What happened to you?”

Her hands moved from my face to my shoulders and to my side. The slight pressure on my wound caused me to grimace in pain and I let out a slight gasp.

“You’re in pain.”

“We were attacked on the way here from Riverden. There is a bounty on my head.”

“I don’t understand. Why?”

“It’s a long story, but you need to be aware that you, father, and Phillip are in grave danger. It was Saromy that was involved in my disappearance, has placed a bounty on my head, and just now threatened me with all your lives if I didn’t leave and never came back here. You’ll want evidence to support that I’m Anna. You are free to examine me, let the doctors confirm I am yours, and, although complicated and difficult to believe, I can share my story.”

Phillip came over to me and hugged me tightly. “I’ve missed you so much, Anna.”

I wasn’t expecting that.

Mother took control of our little group. “I need no confirmation, because I know without a doubt you are my Anna. I would know you anywhere.” She glanced towards the ballroom. “You’re first in line for the throne. We should let the ball continue but we need to make an announcement.”

“I’m not here to take Phillip’s position and I believe father is being poisoned or cursed by Saromy. He can recover.”

Phillip looked at me. “Truth be told, I’ve never had a desire to be King. However, we can’t rush to judgement. Blackfall needs a leader and we’ve not seen you for thirteen years.”

I smiled and fought back the tears. “Where did all this wisdom come from, little brother? What happened to me was Saromy’s doing. You won’t remember this because of what he did, but I was here with you even months ago.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Saromy called upon a demon to erase me from history and get me out of the way. He is the one behind the northern alliance. I have documents with me to prove this. All I ask is that you order Saromy to be held immediately for questioning and seal his quarters, so we can examine it for evidence.”

Phillip turned to the guards. “Do it. Find Saromy and bring him to us in chains if you have to.”

“Yes, my Prince.”

Mother took my hand in hers. “I can’t believe you’re here and what a beautiful young woman you have become. I don’t understand all that has transpired, but I would know you anywhere.” She turned to Phillip. “I’d like to make an announcement to the people of the ball, but such an announcement might have implications for your rule.”

“I said it already, mother. I never wanted to be King. Anna is the firstborn of father’s bloodline and she is the rightful heir. The people should know we believe Anna has been found. It will give them something to gossip about.”

“There are a few more things you should know. Prince Landon is my fiancé and we brought with us a young girl that is very special to me. I ask they be involved in any discussions regarding me and my future.”

Mother looked at Landon and smiled. “What a wonderful choice for a husband. Of course, they are welcome here, Anna.”

With one more look to Phillip, mother took my hand and guided me to the door. I held back as she went to go back into the ballroom.

“What’s the matter, Anna?”

“It is enough for the people to hear about my return. I humbly ask to not be put forth publicly until everyone here has no doubt about the authenticity of who I am. I also fear our time to strike against Saromy is short and I can’t afford the distraction of being with the people.”

She smiled and mostly closed the door behind her. I held my breath as the band stopped playing. My mother raised her voice it for all to hear.

“Citizens of Blackfall and of the realms. We have just discovered some very important news.” Her voice cracked as she fought against her tears. “We believe our lost Princess Anna has been found alive and is here with us today.”

The crowd all started speaking animatedly with each other until mother raised her hand and voice again. “Understandably, there is much to learn and discuss and as such Prince Phillip and myself will no longer be able to attend the rest of tonight’s ball. Please continue and enjoy the festivities and, as soon as we are able, we will send announcements out.”

I could hear shouts from the crowd. “God bless Princess Anna!”

Mother stepped back into the room and closed the door before taking me back into her arms.

“The people are rejoicing for our princess has been found.”

***

The next hours were a whirlwind of activity. Phillip and Landon went together to collect Isabel and our documents. They were tasked with gathering together key people to hear my story and act as authenticators to my claims. As it so happened, Torport’s King and magician were still on hand and they were invited as well.

I was brought to the palace doctor and put through a barrage of tests. They were quite concerned over my wound and shocked by my two hidden daggers. Mother always stayed by my side. It was very late when we arrived together for me to share my story.

Mother started the proceedings. “What a wondrous day. The doctors have confirmed that this is indeed Princess Anna. Our beloved child has finally returned to us.”

For those around the room that were not privy to the news or involved in my testing, they stood and bowed to me in awed wonder.

I clasped mother’s hand and she nodded. “I’m certain you are all anxious to hear my story, but before I begin, I would like to know the status of Saromy.”

A guard stood and before he could say a word, I hugged him. “It’s so good to see you again, Captain Evan.”

“You remember me?”

“I know all of you. Please, let’s hear your report.”

“Unfortunately, Saromy has not been seen. I have sent men through the palace and into the city to begin their search there. Saromy’s chamber has been sealed, but I noted there was some disarray. I suspect he left in a hurry and took his most important belongings with him.”

“Thank you, Captain. Prince Landon. Can you please distribute the documents we brought from Riverden?”

With a nod and a wink, Landon stood and handed out the notice of the bounty on my head as well as orders for northern alliance units.

Mother came to my side. “Please sit, Anna. You’re still wounded and need your rest.”

Everyone looked concerned.

“You’ll understand everything soon.”

***

It took several hours for me to tell my tale. As before there was much confusion around demons and changing of history, but no one could deny that I was able to greet every staff member by name and that my court training and knowledge of the realms was solid.

At the end of everything, the King of Torport stood and addressed me. “What you have said is of great concern for all the realms, Princess Anna. It is vitally important for all the realms to follow Riverden’s example to root out the northern alliance units and seal our borders.”

“I realize there is little for you or the other realms to fully trust me, but once our realms are secure, we should all ally together and take our armies north through the Rorkon Pass. Strategically, if we can do this before the snows recede, we can catch the northern realms unprepared and put an end to all of this with the least cost of life.”

“The Rorkon Pass in winter? It’s impassable.”

“It’s impassable for small groups of people, but for our combined armies we would have the resources to get through together.”

The King stroked his chin and smiled. “It would take careful planning, but you may be right. You know I have a son?”

“Prince Harold is a tad young for me, my King. Besides, I’m already spoken for by Prince Landon.”

“It was worth a try. I now have even more need to get home and take care of my realm. Keep the lines of communication flowing.”

“My King?”

“Yes, Princess Anna?”

“Would it be possible to leave your magician here for a few days? We could use his help with identifying objects of value from Saromy’s chambers and if we were to discover a cure for my father…”

“Say no more.” He turned to his magician. “William, please stay as long as you are needed here.”

“Certainly, my King.”

“Save a dance for me next time, Princess Anna.”

“I will, my King.”

The King of Torport left and Phillip stood to address the group. “I’ve heard enough, and I can clearly see that Anna is more than capable of leading Blackfall. She has already secured alliances with Riverden and Torport and intimately knows the threats that face us. Not that it is needed, but I vote to see Princess Anna crowned as our Queen.”

“But what of father? I’m certain he can recover.”

“He has openly shared with all of us that it is time for him to step aside even should he regain his health.”

Everyone at the table stood. “To the future Queen of Blackfall!”

Phillip came to my side as did mother. They both hugged me. “The realm is yours, sister. What are your orders?”

I took a deep breath and looked over at Landon who sat there with a smug smile on his face. A sleepy Isabel was mouthing the words, “I told you so.”

“Captain Evan. Prepare your messengers. I want every realm to know about Saromy’s plans and to seek out and eliminate the northern alliance units within their own cities. We must assume Saromy was using Blackfall and building a mercenary army here as well. I found the Riverden underground amicable to working with us. I suspect the criminal element of Blackfall could perhaps see us as an ally. We need their eyes and ears to help us find Saromy.”

Landon chuckled. “Camila, I mean Anna, had the leader of the Riverden Thieves’ Guild eating from the palm of her hand.”

I turned back to Captain Evan. “All I need is the name and location of the leader of Blackfall’s underground and I will make arrangements to meet him.”

Captain Evan raised an eyebrow. “We just got you back, Princess Anna. I wouldn’t wish to put you at risk.”

I smiled. “You trained me well even if you don’t remember it. I can take care of myself.”

“I’ve seen Princess Anna in action, Captain. Don’t underestimate her.”

The captain grinned at Landon before turning back towards me. “I think once everyone gets some needed sleep, I could test our Princess. I’ll get the messages out. What about using the same messengers to relay the news of Princess Anna?”

“If you still haven’t changed your mind about me, then go ahead. William, please get some rest. Tomorrow we will investigate Saromy’s quarters.”

William stood and bowed before leaving the room.

Mother put her arm around me. “You need rest too.”

“I’d like to see father first. Shall we adjourn until tomorrow?”

All agreed, and Isabel ran over to hug me. “You’re the real lost princess!”

“Thanks for believing in me, Isabel.”

Landon came over and kissed me. “I’ll send a message to my mother and father. I always knew there was something special about you.”

“You still want to marry me?”

“I should be asking you that question of me.”

I leaned in and kissed him. “You’re stuck with me.”

Isabel pushed herself between us. “Really?”

***

Mother opened the door to my parent’s room and I waited near the door until she waved me over to the bed. What I saw tore at my heart. My father was a fraction of the man I remembered. His illness had ravaged his body. I stifled a cry and held back a few paces.

“Edward. I’m sorry to wake you. There is someone you need to meet.”

His weak eyes drifted from mother to me and he struggled to push himself up in bed. I started crying as he called out my name.

“Anna!”

I fell into his arms and wept on his thin body as he held me close.

***

Time with father was short as he needed his rest as did I. We could only talk a little before he fell back asleep and mother escorted me from the room. From there I headed back to the guest rooms for some much-needed sleep.

It was late morning when Isabel came in and awakened me.

“There is a small line of people waiting for you to get up. Once the staff found out who you were, there was no end to those that wanted to serve you. The few clothes you brought have been cleaned and carefully returned to you. Unfortunately, we only had your gown, your travel clothes, your black outfit, and one dress. I laid out the dress for you.”

I groaned. “Thank you, Isabel. You’re more than I deserve.”

“Nonsense. Up you get. The world awaits.”

“Now I have two mothers…”

Isabel laughed. “Three when you include the Queen of Riverden. She already thinks of you as her daughter.”

I got up and changed quickly before heading into the guest foyer. Landon was first in line to greet me, but he stepped away quickly to give my mother a chance.

“I barely got any sleep, Anna. I was afraid I would wake up to find this had all been a dream.”

“I can’t tell you how many times I woke up over the past months thinking the same thing, mother.”

“As you can see, there are a few people that are here to serve you. They all want to be a part of making your transition back into the palace as smooth as possible.” Mother placed a small tiara upon my head. “Welcome back, my Princess.” Mother hugged me tight. “I know you will be busy with many things, but I reserve the right to invite you, Prince Landon, and Isabel for dinner.”

“I’m torn between my duty and my desire to be with you and father. I’ve missed you both so much.”

Mother kissed my cheek and hugged me once more before stepping back out into the palace. Landon sat back in a comfortable chair and smiled as I was waited upon. People took my measurements, offered me food and drink, told me my palace rooms were ready, and I had several messages from local dignitaries welcoming me home.

When the onslaught was finished, I squeezed myself next to Landon. He reached up and touched my tiara.

“You have no idea how much I’m enjoying this.”

“You enjoy watching me be poked and prodded?”

“No. I enjoy seeing you treated like the future Queen of Blackfall.”

“I’ve come a long way since you first met me.”

“I kind of liked you in that rough, short frock. The red outfit is still my favorite.”

“I might need to get another one of those for our wedding night.”

“There’s no need. You wouldn’t be wearing it long anyways.”

“You two! Cut that out!”

Landon smiled. “Captain Evan came by a little earlier. He gave an update on the search for Saromy. They had several citizens think they spotted him in the city. Word of your return has spread like wildfire.”

I kissed him. “You’re sure you still want me?”

“If Isabel wasn’t here, I would take you back to your bedroom.”

“I heard that!”

***

Two guards had been posted at Saromy’s chambers and they quickly bowed at our approach.

William took the lead. “Let me go inside first in case there are traps.”

I nodded. “The last time I was here I got stuck in a magical circle. Guards, please stay close.”

William opened the door and stood at the threshold for a few minutes carefully examining the floor, walls, and ceiling.

“It appears clear.”

Phillip arrived and greeted me with a hug just as William stepped inside followed by Landon.

I called in after them. “We’re looking for anything that might give us a clue as to how we can heal my father. Also, any information on the dark magic he used on me or his plans with the northern alliance.”

Phillip gently touched my shoulder. “How are you holding up, Anna?”

“It’s hard, Phillip. I have all these memories that none of you share. We used to play…”

Phillip smiled. “Thieves’ reward and assassin.”

“You remember that?”

“Yes. Even though you wore noisy dresses, you still beat me.”

I overheard William’s voice from inside the room. “Watch out for that circle on the floor, Prince Landon.”

I glanced past Phillip into the room beyond. Phillip hugged me before heading inside himself. I paused at the entryway and shivered. I still felt the demon’s fire burning my skin.

William started reaching for a black leather-bound book on a desk.

“Stop!”

William froze. “Princess Anna?”

“Something isn’t right. That book is out of place. Saromy would never leave his secrets out like that. He’s playing a game with us.”

William moved his head closer to the book. “You’re right, Princess Anna. I see scratched markings around the book. It was a trap.”

“Everyone, please, be very careful.”

I stepped inside the room and froze. It wasn’t that my feet were stuck, but inside the circle I saw a flicker of fire.

“Get back and away from the circle!”

The fiery demon roared to life within the circle.

“Ah… It’s you, Anna. Saromy has fled from the raven.”

I approached the demon slowly. “Who is the raven and who controls you?”

“You are the raven and I control myself.”

“What do you want?”

“To see Saromy burn for forcing me to comply to his commands.”

“As do I.”

“If you want Saromy, you must confront him alone, but you will need a weapon to counter his magic.”

The demon bent down and stretched out his clawed hands. A sword appeared with a hilt carved like a raven.

“How can I trust you?”

“The second shelf above the desk to the left. The third notebook in.”

William moved over and identified the book. He carefully examined everything around before pulling the notebook from the shelf. He opened it and turned back to me. “This appears to be Saromy’s handwritten account of King Edward’s curse. I’ll need to examine it thoroughly, but I can probably reverse it.”

I turned back to the demon. “Thank you.”

“This sword is bound to you alone. It will send Saromy to me upon his death. This is all the payment I require.”

The demon dissolved away, and the sword rolled free of the circle on the floor. I went to reach for it when Phillip held my hand back.

“Can we trust a demon?”

“I’ll defer to William on that.”

William was thoughtful for a moment. “A demon of that strength is extremely rare. The stronger the demon, the more violent their temperament towards their master. The demon has orchestrated Saromy’s demise through you, Princess Anna. It can’t exact its revenge as it is trapped within the circle. Yes… I believe I would trust it in this situation.”

I grasped the hilt of the sword and felt the black metal warm to my touch. I’d never felt a sword so perfectly matched for me or one that was so well-balanced.

“What happens to the traps when Saromy is killed, William?”

“They should be eradicated.”

“Then I suggest we have what we need for now. We can search again when Saromy is no more. We need to keep this room sealed.”

Once we were all back in the hallway, Landon cupped my face and kissed me.

“It’s one thing to hear the story and quite another to see the demon firsthand. I can’t imagine how frightening that must have been for you.”

“I would go through it again to have you by my side.”

I turned to William. “The palace is at your disposal. Anything you need to undo the curse on my father, just ask.”

“Thank you, Princess Anna. I’ll start deciphering this right away.”

***

Several days had passed. Landon was in the city scouting with Captain Evan. My wound was much less tender now and I had daily visits with the doctors to assure it was healing well. I was ready to start training again.

Isabel and I had moved into my palace suite. I didn’t feel right having her stay in the guest quarters. Mother had taken it upon herself to make sure I would never be without a suitable set of clothing and my closet was now filled with gorgeous dresses.

Captain Evan had discovered the leader of the Theives’ Guild in the city. His name was Eric the Ruthless, and we were making plans for a visit to him.

I had spent much time with father, mother, and Phillip reconnecting with them. I was now standing on the uppermost rampart of the palace and pulled my cloak a little more tightly around me. The cold air of winter was settling in and any day now we would be expecting our first snowfall.

The city looked to be at peace, but with Saromy potentially hiding out and a mercenary army being created, it was only a matter of time before he tried to overthrow the city. I spent a great amount of time trying to put myself in Saromy’s shoes to consider what his next move would be.

The sun burst forth for a momentary reprieve from the gray clouds and light reflected off my engagement ring. A light breeze came up and my long brunette hair drifted lazily in front of my eyes. I no longer felt every subtle move of my body as being foreign and strange, instead, on these rare moments that I was all by myself, a smile was so easy to produce. I loved being Camila, Ravenna, Anna. My name and title mattered little to me.

While I had enjoyed the feeling of youthful strength that I had as a young man, I found being a woman I wasn’t as weak as I thought I would be. As a man, destined for kingship, I had been taught to push my feelings away; to always look in control. As a woman, I felt I could feel for the first time in my life. My emotions touched those around me and this made me a better leader and friend.

“I thought I might find you here.”

“Father! You should be resting.”

“Thanks to you and William from Torport, I’m quickly on the mend and I needed to get out of that insufferable bed and find some fresh air and my daughter.”

My hand moved to his gray bearded cheek before I encircled my arms around him. “I’m so thankful you’re doing better.”

He gently pushed me back and held my shoulders at arm’s length. “Look at you, Anna. I understand that it has only been a few months for you, but for me, thirteen years have passed since I’ve seen you. There is no more beautiful woman in all the realms. You’re every inch a Sutton. You’re so strong, confident, and regal. How I’ve missed you.”

“You’re going to make me cry again, father. I thought I had lost you all when Saromy cast his curse upon me. For weeks I believed I was homeless and without a family that would ever know me. The loss of my family’s love was unbearable to me.”

“I think these experiences will make you an even better Queen than I was King. You understand what it is like to live in fear, to be homeless, and without food. Yet, for all that Saromy tried to do to you, you rose above it all and found your way.”

“I am who I am because of you, father. I see how healthy you are becoming and…”

“Hush, Anna. I know what you are about to say; that I can still be King. I’ve been King for many years now and I hope I did well balancing my role’s responsibilities with being there for my family. There comes a time when a leader must step aside and let the fruit of their lives take over. I want to spend my remaining years with my loving wife and hopefully some grandchildren.”

I blushed at that thought.

“And Phillip? Do you think he is telling the truth that he has no desire to rule?”

“I’ve not seen him smile so much in years. He’s a great son and would lead well, but his heart is elsewhere.”

“Then I humbly accept the role as Queen, but not without fear and trepidation.”

“Maybe you don’t see it like I do, but the people adore you. They will follow you anywhere. Even your Isabel, which, I might add, is a little precocious, worships you. She told me her story while feeding me some delectable bread treats. You saved her, protected her, and took her in. How much more will you do for the thousands of people in our realm.”

I smiled. “She is adorable. How she snuck into your room to feed you sweet bread treats is something I’ll have to pry out of her.” I held out my arm and father slipped his around it. “Let’s get you out of the cold.”

***

The next day I met with Captain Evan, mother, father, Phillip, and Landon.

Mother looked at me and smiled before starting the meeting. “I think it is time we send communications out to the citizens. Phillip would have been crowned King just a few days from now and the people and the realms need to know what is going to happen.”

Glancing at mother, I knew she was right, but timing was a bit of a challenge. “I agree, but I’d like to hear from Prince Landon and Captain Evan. What are you hearing in the streets?”

Landon leaned back a little in his chair. “It’s quiet. We’re not getting anything other than everyone is anxious to see their Princess.”

I frowned. “We need more eyes and ears on the streets. It’s time I have a visit with Erik the Ruthless.” I paused. “I’ve been trying to put myself in Saromy’s position. With my return, he has lost a level of respect with the alliance that he will want to repair. Saromy needs to emphasize his right to rule. What would be the most demoralizing thing he could do to us?”

Phillip offered his opinion. “Eliminate the hope of the realm.”

I raised an eyebrow at Phillip. He had changed so much. “How would he do that?”

“Unless we have a spy in the palace, he wouldn’t know that father is getting better. You’re the hope, Anna.”

“He’s tried to kill me before in Riverden and on our trip here. He might try the same tactic again…”

Landon took my hand into his. “I’ve seen that look on you before. What are you planning?”

“It’s not so much a plan as that something doesn’t feel right. Aside from a few citizens thinking they might have seen Saromy, we have no evidence to suggest he is in the city. Even our own guards reported they didn’t see Saromy leaving the palace. Somehow, we need to draw him out, but I’m not sure what would be the right venue to force his hand. I ask that everyone be cautious. Saromy won’t give up.”

***

I had changed into clothes that would be good for training and met Captain Evan, Phillip, and Landon in the main hall. I was using the raven sword to make sure I got used to it.

“I’ll start out easy on you, Princess Anna. I need to gauge your skill.”

“You don’t remember, but the last time you and I crossed blades, you brought three additional guards with you.”

“How did we do?”

I smiled for my answer. “Standard rules of training, I presume?”

“Yes.”

Captain Evan bowed and snapped up his sword at forty-five degrees. I did the same and touched his sword with mine. We each took a step back and Captain Evan performed an easy slash across my midsection.

I stepped back without so much as an attempt to block it. Another quick thrust by Captain Evan easily fell short and I paused.

“You’re not trying to hit me.”

“You’re the future Queen, my Princess.”

“Let’s try this again.”

We touched swords, but this time I was the aggressor. I quickly pressed the Captain back around the room before He called Landon to join him. Landon was an excellent sword fighter and I quickly found myself struggling to keep up with the two men. I dodged and rolled, drawing my dagger to give myself some additional maneuverability against the two swords.

Phillip laughed at the two. “Seriously? You’ve not landed a single hit on her.”

Captain Evan was sweating now. “Why don’t you join us?”

Phillip and I rarely crossed swords in training growing up. He was never a match for me, but with the change of history, I was amazed by his newfound abilities. He was a truly fabulous swordsman. I was now fighting as hard as I ever fought and losing ground. I was forced back around the room step by step. The weight and balance of the demon’s sword was the only thing from keeping me from being hit.

I was weaving a web of steel around me, but it simply wasn’t enough. Phillip touched my left arm and I was forced to drop my dagger. I was done for, but I wasn’t finished yet. With a flurry and a roll, I managed to critically touch the Captain’s breast taking him out of the fight. I continued to move and pressed my body against Landon so that his sword was useless at close range. I kissed him as I felt Phillip’s sword touch my back for a kill.

Dropping my sword, I fell panting into Landon’s arms. “I guess now you’ll have to find someone else to marry. You’ve killed me.”

“What have I done?”

Everyone started laughing. I stepped back and curtsied to the three of them. “You’re an amazing fighter, Phillip.”

“It took all three of us to take you down. I’ve never witnessed such skill.”

I slipped my arm around Landon’s waist as I caught my breath. “What do you think, Captain Evan? Can I go meet Eric the Ruthless now?”

“I can see you are more than capable of protecting yourself, but we should take a few men with us just in case. Besides, you need to wear a gown befitting a princess which will make it harder to fight in.”

“You’re right. I have some suggestions for the local dressmakers. Shall we be ready to go in an hour?”

“I’ll arrange everything.”

“Thank you, Captain Evan.”

After he left, Phillip told me he would take his leave to begin taking care of some additional communications. That left Landon and me alone.

I snuggled up into Landon’s arms. “What if we just eloped? We could take a boat to some island and live out our days.”

“Both our parents would disown us. My mother has been looking forward to marrying me off since I was two years old. I suspect your parents feel the same way about you.”

“I’m looking forward to being your wife. I just don’t see any chance that will happen for a while. Once Blackfall is secured, we need to support the other realms and then finally mount an attack on the north. It will be spring by the time we could be married.”

“I knew it. You really like me. Is it my rugged good looks? My bedside manner?”

“Sorry to have to tell you this, but I have to be honest. It’s your horse. Always has been.”

“So, if I do this…” Landon pulled my hair to the side and started kissing my neck. “…and this…” His hand slipped to my waist and ever so slowly moved it up and towards my…

I gasped as warmth shot through my body. All I could do was let out a light moan. “All right… I lied. It’s you. Your horse is nice, but he can’t compete.”

“We have to marshal the armies. Why not here in Blackfall? All the realms would have their kings here and we could perform the wedding before we cross the pass into the northern realms.”

“That would work. The sooner the better because I’m tempted to violate every standard of good behavior when I’m around you.”

“I’m not tempted in the least. I’m a pillar of strength and resolve.”

“You are, are you? So, if I do this…”

***

I was still blushing when I mounted my horse. Mother had found us kissing passionately in the training hall. We were only slightly scolded.

I changed to a riding dress that, according to mother, was perfect for my first foray into the city. She wanted to make sure I made a statement. I still managed to strap my sword on under my cloak, but the body-hugging dress and outfit were a spectacular arrangement.

Captain Evan led our small group down into the seedier part of the city. This was, by no means, a dirty part of town as Blackfall was a remarkably beautiful city. It was just that this was where Eric’s headquarters was located and there tended to be more crime in the area.

We made quite the commotion riding through the city. Children ran ahead of us and hundreds of people came out of the stores and restaurants to see their lost princess. Word had been spread that I would be taking Phillip’s place and would be crowned Queen soon and that Prince Landon of Riverden was my fiancé.

We stopped and dismounted before a simple building. A man came out and greeted us. “We’ve been expecting you, Princess Anna. Please, follow me.”

“Shall I check things out first, my Princess?”

“It’s all right, Captain Evan. I’m sure had they meant to harm us we would already be embroiled in a fight.”

We followed the man inside and I was surprised to find a lack of lavish surroundings that I had seen with Canter. We were introduced to Eric the Ruthless, who turned out to be a red-headed, small man, but even so, his presence was powerful.

“Sorry for the paltry accommodations, my Princess. We’ve suffered some recent setbacks. How should I address you? I’ve been given Camila, Anna, and Ravenna for you.” His eyes moved to the hilt of my sword.

“Since it has now been proven that I’m the Princess Anna of Blackfall, Anna will do fine.”

“Not Princess Anna?”

“Anna is acceptable. How did you hear about me?”

“The question might be easier to answer if you asked how I didn’t hear about you. You’re all anyone talks about in this city lately. Canter sends his regards, by the way.”

“Certainly, I can’t be the only thing you are hearing in the streets. You know why I’m here?”

“Saromy and the northern alliance. They’ve completely taken over my business here in Blackfall. I’ve had to resort to less scrupulous methods of earning money.”

“Less scrupulous than running the criminal underground?”

“Much. I’ve had to become a real businessman.”

I laughed. “Then you have a head start on where I wanted you to go anyways.”

He offered a sly grin. “You’re not what I expected; not like other royalty.”

“Oh? You entertain royalty on a regular basis?”

“No… It’s just… Canter said you were beautiful and deadly. I took that as a metaphor.”

“Let’s get down to business, shall we? I think we can be of mutual assistance to each other.”

“I’m all ears.”

“I need information on Saromy and the alliance, where Saromy might be holding up, and the numbers of their men.”

“We haven’t located where Saromy is staying. None of my men have seen him. The northern alliance in Blackfall is closing in on four hundred men at arms.”

“Four hundred? You’re certain?”

“Yes. Hence the luxurious accommodations you are now within.”

“And your loyal men?”

“Now numbering fifty at most.”

Something was still bothering me about Saromy’s disappearance, but I wasn’t sure what it was yet. “Is there a bounty on your head?”

“No, but there is on yours. Two thousand gold.”

Landon and Captain Evan started shifting closer to my side.

“Saromy is less pleased with me than ever. This bounty isn’t something you’re interested in?”

“I’d pay more myself to be rid of Saromy and his minions. I can’t do this alone.”

“I can’t have you going back to your old lines of business. You understand that?”

“I do.”

“If we get this cleaned up, I will offer any assistance I can to help you build your business. It won’t be as lucrative, but then again I won’t have to shut you down either.”

“I agree. Who should I work with to arrange for meetings between the palace staff and my men for information exchange?”

“Have your initial conversations with Captain Evan. Who you assign after that is up to the both of you.” I extended my hand and he took it.

***

It was the middle of the night when I woke. For days I felt like I had been missing something and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. What was bothering me was why Saromy hadn’t made a move yet.

I sat up and knew I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. I got dressed and realized I must have passed over something in Saromy’s quarters. Strapping on my weapons, I made my way down through the palace until I came to his room.

“Unseal the door for me and please, wait outside.”

“Yes, my Princess.”

The guards opened the door and stepped aside as I moved into Saromy’s chambers. I stood in the middle of the room and closed my eyes trying to recall where everything had been that last time I was here. When I opened them again, I carefully scanned the room. It was still filled with the dusty old books and glass vials. The book on the desk was in the same place. The chair was positioned correctly. Nothing was amiss.

I was about to turn and leave, when I noticed a book on a bookcase had fallen over. Why it caught my eye, I wasn’t certain, but the bookcase was uniquely positioned and the floor in front of the case was devoid of any furniture or objects. My curiosity got the better of me and I ran my hands along the wooden frame of the case, finally grabbing the edge and pulling forward.

Surprisingly, the bookcase moved easily revealing a passageway behind it. Grabbing a torch from a nearby wall, I lit it and took a step into the passage not aware of the magical runes I had just stepped over. With a sudden gust of wind, the door to Saromy’s chambers slammed shut behind me. I rushed back to the door and pushed and pushed to no avail. The door was magically sealed. Even my knocking on the door produced no results from the other side.

I sighed and drew my sword and dagger before pulling the chair around to face the hidden passageway behind the bookcase. Sitting down in the chair, I stared at the passageway realizing I had just made a huge mistake in this game I was playing. Saromy no doubt had another room beneath the palace or at the end of the passageway possibly within the city. I couldn’t afford to make any more mistakes. Traps were likely hidden along the passage.

“If nothing else, you’re predictable.”

I fought the urge to move into the passage as any advancing attack from there could be more easily dealt with. I had to change my tactics. Saromy would likely have been alerted to his trap being set off. He would then expect me, or a team to rush blindly down the passage and possibly be caught off guard. While the room was much less defensible, it could work to my advantage.

I stood and maneuvered the chair in front of the passage and began slowly blocking off sections of the room. I had just stepped back to see if there was anything else I could do when I began hearing noises coming up from the passageway. The noises were soon followed by flickers of distant light. I quickly cut strips from my long dress to shorten it to offer myself more maneuverability.

The noises became voices and soon I heard Saromy’s voice above the others.

“Step lightly here… Avoid that stone there… You’re clear from here to my chambers.”

I tried to focus on the sounds of the steps to gauge the number of men Saromy was bringing with him. I couldn’t ponder that question long as the first man crashed hard into the chair sending it skittering across the floor and crashing into the opposite wall. He was huge, but he was unprepared for me being off to the side and I thrust my sword up under his ribs. He fell over becoming a bit of an obstacle for the next man that burst into the room.

I had worked my way back and around Saromy’s large wooden desk as man after man poured into the chamber. While one man came at me from one side of the desk, another was trying to remove the furniture I had stacked on the other side. This gave me a little time to focus on one attacker at a time.

My assailant thrust his sword forward, but he put himself off balance in his attempt to reach me. Ducking low and under his blade, I slammed my heel against his shin knocking his feet from underneath him. He fell hard with his arms outstretched, his chin cracking loudly against the stone floor. Thrusting my dagger into his temple, I made sure he wouldn’t become a threat again later in the fight.

My attacker on the right side of the desk was finally pushing his way forward but his attention was on the remaining piece of furniture. Rolling over the edge of the desk, I spun away from another attacker and plunged my sword through the breast of the man.

That was three down but as I stood on the desk, I could count five more men and Saromy was now in the room. His eyes focused on mine and smiled. I had no time to worry about him right now. I kicked the next attacker’s face on the left side of the desk, and jumped off the desk towards him, narrowly avoiding getting split in two by the vicious downward swing by another man on my right.

I was now face to face with the dazed man I had kicked, and a couple of parries and a thrust sent that man into the open bookcase, slamming the passageway shut. In the meantime, the man on the right side, vaulted on top of the desk, but hit the spell-trapped book in the process. With a scream, the man burst into flames and then fell to the desk surface as nothing but ash.

Saromy yelled out. “Fools! She is only one girl.”

Any preparations I had made were now useless as the remaining three men carefully and slowly backed me into a corner. My sword was flying between my attackers and out of the corner of my eye I watched as Saromy began casting a spell. Redoubling my efforts, I felt a sword graze my left arm, but the man left himself unguarded and I drove my dagger into his chest. He twisted as he fell back, taking my dagger with him.

Another sword thrust deep into my thigh as Saromy finished his spell. I could feel my sword heating in my hand and the raven eyes on the hilt began to glow with power. Ignoring the pain in my thigh, I rolled out of the corner and sliced upward against my closest attacker. The eyes on my sword’s raven hilt flashed and the man my sword touched fell to the ground in convulsions.

“What sorcery is this?” Saromy was shouting and he knew he was in trouble. Only one of his guards was left and Saromy’s eyes fell upon the passageway that was now closed and blocked by a heavy alliance guard.

I hobbled slightly as I stood and managed to grab a second sword that had fallen on the floor. I lifted my chin and faced the final guard and taunted him to come toward me. The man hesitated and Saromy ordered him to attack me as he tried to pull the bookcase open and escape.

Behind me and to my left, a flame appeared inside a magical circle. The demon roared as it rose and thrust itself towards Saromy stopping only as it slammed into the magical wall. The last guard froze in fear of the creature giving me time to slip beneath his sword and finish him off.

I took a tired and bloody step forward towards Saromy. “You will suffer for what you have done to me and my family. You will pay for the lives you have taken. You will fail in your quest for power.”

Saromy turned his hate-filled eyes towards me. “I only spared your life because Phillip wanted you to see him take the throne.”

I sneered at him and took another step forward. Somehow the door to Saromy’s room opened and I could hear the frantic shouts of those outside still trying to get through a second magical barrier. Landon, Phillip, and Captain Evan were trying everything in their power to get through.

“Phillip is an honorable and courageous man. We should have been done with you years ago.”

Saromy drew his sword and launched himself at me. I was immediately pushed back by the ferocity of his blows. His skill was beyond that which I had ever encountered before. I raised my left sword just in time to block his next blow and my left leg gave out from the earlier wound.

The shouting outside intensified.

“You are nothing! Your sniveling father…”

I growled and pushed back with all my strength giving me a chance to get back on my feet. Saromy struck again and I blocked his attack with my left sword, this time I swung low with my raven sword and cut through his calf. A burst of flame sizzled across the cut and the demon roared in obvious delight.

Saromy took a limping step back and crossed his sword over his head and around to smash against my raven sword. This left him open on his side and my left sword took advantage of that. With a scream of pain, Saromy stepped back again.

“With my death, the demon will be released, and he will take his revenge on all mankind starting with you.”

“I’m not playing your game any longer, Saromy. I’ll take that chance.” A flick of my left sword caused Saromy to move quickly to block it, but my raven sword was there to take advantage of his opening. Flames seared across his chest and the demon screamed again. I felt a surge of renewed energy and Saromy’s eyes were filled with fear. I began to slowly tear him to pieces, the raven sword flashing fire every place it cut him.

With a final and desperate surge, Saromy rushed me, but this was my game now. I anticipated his attack and stepped aside as I dropped my block. His sword crashed heavily into the wooden desk. When he turned to face me as he struggled to free his sword, I was ready.

“For your acts of high treason against the realms, for the curses you have put on me and mine, you are hereby sentenced to death.”

I thrust the raven sword into his heart. He burst into flames and then suddenly vanished from around my blade. Inside the demon’s circle, the image of Saromy appeared. The demon roared and sank its teeth into Saromy before they both vanished from sight.

Seconds later, the invisible barrier blocking everyone from the room dissolved away and I was wrapped in Landon’s strong embrace.

“I felt so helpless, Anna. If I lost…”

“It’s all right… It’s over now. At least this portion of it.”

Landon lifted me into his arms and carried me back out into the hallway. “I’m getting Anna to the doctor.”

“Wait…”

Landon paused and swung me around.

“Captain Evan. I don’t know how much you saw or were aware of, but behind the bookcase is a passageway. We can’t be certain there are not traps, magical ones, or otherwise, but I would like us to see where this goes. My hunch is that it ends up in the city and we might just find the headquarters for the alliance at the other end. We should fully secure these areas until we are prepared to root out the alliance within the city, but we don’t have long as I suspect Saromy will be missed.”

“I’ll have my team ready to investigate this within the hour, my Princess.”

“I should…”

“I’m sorry, my Princess, but you’re injured and as you said, time is of the essence. We can handle this.”

“Be safe, Captain Evan.”

Landon turned and quickly headed through the hallways. “You should have come and got me.”

“I was restless and couldn’t sleep. I wanted to return to Saromy’s room and see if I could discover anything else. When I found the passageway, I stepped inside to get a feel for it, and I triggered a magical trap that locked the door to the room and trapped me inside.”

“By the looks of the room, you did some damage.”

“Once I realized I was trapped, I staged items around the room to give me advantages in a fight. I’m just grateful it’s over. You know, I could get used to being carried around like this.”

Landon frowned. “You need to stop getting injured so I can carry you without feeling an urgency to kill or maim someone.”

“Maybe we could bypass the doctor and you could carry me straight to bed?”

“Not a chance. I’ve got my willpower and I don’t want to get the blood of a dozen men on me while I make love to you.”

“Mmm. You say such romantic things.”

***

The doctor treated my cuts and bruises and ordered me to rest for several days. Just as he left, mother, father, and Isabel rushed in.

Mother hugged me tight. “Are you all right, Anna?”

“I’ll be fine with a day or so of rest and recuperation.”

Father came over and sat next to me. “I heard Saromy is dead and half his army too.”

I scrunched up my nose a little. “You need a better source of news, father. Saromy is dead, and a few of his alliance mercenaries as well.”

Isabel pulled at my dress. “How much blood on this dress is yours?”

Landon sat down at the foot of the bed. “Including Saromy, that would be nine men and Anna’s.”

Isabel’s eyes went wide. “Nine? That’s gross. We need to get you cleaned up and changed.”

Landon sighed. “We couldn’t get through the door to reach Anna until Saromy was dead. By then it was all over.”

Mother hugged me again and stroked my cheek with her hand. “Let’s get you back to your room so you can get cleaned up and you can rest.”

I smiled and leaned my head into her hand.

***

I only managed to rest a short while before I felt the need to get up and get dressed. I wrapped a few additional bandages around my thigh before selecting a dress and putting on my weapons.

I limped out of my room and ran into Isabel who seemed to be guarding the door.

Isabel rushed to my side so I could lean on her a little. “What are you doing up so soon?”

“I can’t sleep knowing that Captain Evan and our guards are out there risking their lives right now. I should be out there with them.”

“I think you did your part, my Princess.”

I sighed and bent down to cup Isabel’s face. “Please call me Anna. Why don’t we see what information we can find?”

“What about food?”

“I won’t eat until I know people are safe.”

Aside from the guards that protected my room and every avenue to me, the palace was remarkably quiet. We entered the throne room to find a table had been set up with maps of the city. Phillip and Landon were pouring over the maps and talking strategy.

Landon immediately came to my side. “You should be resting.”

“How can I rest knowing we have our people at risk?”

A messenger came into the room.

“Excuse my interruption. I have word from Captain Evan that they were successful in traversing the passage and securing the alliance headquarters within the city, however, they are under attack from alliance forces all around them. Although they are holding their own, more alliance forces are coming towards them.”

“Any word of casualties?”

“None yet, my Princess.”

“Can you take us there?”

The messenger’s eyes flicked to my dress where a little blood had seeped through my bandage. “You’re bleeding, my Princess. I…”

“I’ll be fine. Perhaps I can take a carriage, but I will not stand back when…”

Father came into the room. He was dressed in his finest battle outfit and had his sword on his hip. “When what?”

“I was about to say I couldn’t stay back when our people need us the most.” I had the messenger point to the location on the map where Captain Evan found the alliance headquarters. “I would like to make a strategic suggestion. There are three main arteries leading to this location. We have guards and military around the city. I suggest we separate into three teams. The river is blocking any attacks from the south. We divide up the military and guards and perform a sweep towards this point. Phillip to come in from the west, Landon, joining me and Eric’s men from the east, and father from the north.”

Father looked over the maps and nodded. “Let’s move!” He turned to me and hugged me. “I want you to stay here in the palace. You’re already wounded, and we can’t afford to lose you. We’ll send additional guards with Landon to join up with Eric and his men.”

I bit my lower lip. “I will.”

Landon kissed me and rushed from the room. I paced back and forth suddenly realizing the folly of my strategy.

I turned to the messenger. “Round up fifty men and meet me at Saromy’s chambers in ten minutes.”

“But… my Princess?”

“I may have made a mistake. My strategy will work, but it will drive all the alliance towards Captain Evan. He is going to need our support.”

“Yes, my Princess.”

That left Isabel and me in the throne room. “Isabel, I want you to run ahead to my room and get my black outfit ready. The pants will help put some pressure on my leg.”

“You lied to your father?”

“Captain Evan is likely facing intense fighting. I can bring a force to support him until everyone else arrives. Quickly!”

***

By the time I had arrived at my room, Isabel was ready for me. She wrapped more bandages around my thigh and helped me dress. She hugged me tight as I rushed to get to Saromy’s room.

“Be safe, Anna.”

“I will.”

It was hard to see the fear in Isabel’s eyes as I left. The additional bandages and my black pants helped hold my thigh wound together and it even made it easier to walk. When I reached Saromy’s room, the guards were ready.

I was given several odd looks because of my clothing, but I ignored that and led the way down the passage behind the bookcase. We made good time as Captain Evan had marked the physical traps along the way and it appeared any magical traps had been removed with Saromy’s death.

I was shocked at the distance of the passageway and as we neared the end, I could hear fierce fighting going on. I drew my weapons and rushed into a large room. Captain Evan had only a few of his dozen men still standing. Alliance fighters were streaming in from two entryways. My men poured out of the passageway and immediately began pushing back the alliance mercenaries. I fought my way over to Captain Evan.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes, my Princess. I would scold you, but I appreciate your support.”

I blocked a slash and thrust my sword deep into my assailant’s chest. “I thought you might need a few reinforcements. Things might get worse before they get better.”

The captain parried and attack and sliced through a man’s leg. “You mean worse than this?”

I winced as I stepped forward on my bad leg and ran another man through. “Father, Phillip, and Landon are pressing the alliance right to us.”

Captain Evan glanced at my left foot to see blood trickling down. “Please, my Princess. Step back and let our men fight.”

“I’ll do my best to take care of the wounded. We need to press forward to reclaim these entryways.”

I was starting to get dizzy as I dragged a guard back and out of the fray. Finding some cloth, I used my dagger to cut strips and started binding the man’s wounds. When his eyes focused on mine, they went wide.

“My Princess…”

“Shhh… If you think you can get to your feet, we need more help here. If you can manage it, go back through the passageway to the palace and send any and all remaining guards to us here. Also, look for medical staff. We have to hold out a little longer.” I finished tying the bandage around the man’s shoulder that had a nasty gash.

“Yes, my Princess.”

“Please hurry.”

“Behind you!”

Grabbing my sword, I spun and was just in time to block a savage thrust to my side. A twist of my sword sent the attacker’s blade across the room and a final thrust into the man’s heart stopped him in his tracks.

Turning back to the guard, I lightly touched his face. “Thank you.”

I reached for another guard and pulled him back but unfortunately, he was gone. I could now barely stand, but I pushed my way forward to a group of guards failing in their push to seal the entryway before them. “Come on, men! We must get this door closed! All together!”

I wove a net of steel before me, cutting and thrusting, parrying and blocking. My added support was all they needed, and the doorway sealed with a heavy beam put into place. I staggered and pointed to Captain Evan. “Everyone put your efforts on holding that entryway!”

I stood as long as I could before falling backwards onto the floor. I slipped in and out of consciousness. Several times guards came to my side, but I managed to redirect them back to holding the entryway and supporting Captain Evan.

Many minutes passed and I continued to struggle to get to my feet. I could hear shouting outside and the clash of arms. There was a huge surge at the entryway and Captain Evan and the men fell backwards just as men rushed into the room from the passageway. They quickly strengthened the captain’s line and I felt many hands on me taking me back through the passage and into the palace.

***

At some point, I must have dozed off as I woke back in my own bed. Mother was there beside me holding my hand. I squeezed it gently as I pushed myself up into a sitting position.

Her hand stroked my head as she leaned in to kiss my cheek. “You need to learn to take care of yourself better.”

“What of Captain Evan, Phillip, Landon, and father? How did we fare?”

“Your plan was a success. The alliance has been routed. We lost a total of twenty-three men. Landon, Phillip, and father are all fine. Captain Evan is very thankful for your quick actions to support him and his team without which he swears he and all his men would have perished.”

“I should see to them.”

Mother put her hand on my shoulder. “If you don’t relax and rest, I’ll have the doctor’s sedate you. You lost a lot of blood and I’ll not lose you twice. They have prescribed two days of bedrest and I will enforce that.”

Knowing mother wasn’t going to let me up, I sat up some more and considered my future. “What’s it like being a queen and being married?”

Mother laughed lightly. “Being a queen carries much responsibility, especially in your case since you carry your father’s bloodline you will be the person in charge of determining much of what happens within the realm. As for being a wife, that greatly depends on you and the one you marry. I have no concerns and believe you will excel in both roles. I see the way you look at Landon and the way he looks at you.”

“It’s a lot to absorb and to think about.”

“If it makes anything easier, I can offer a little bit of advice.”

“I’m always welcoming of good advice.”

“You have two roles, queen and wife. As queen, you can delegate and defer decisions to trusted people, but as a wife, you can never do this. You will never be a good queen if you are not a good wife first. Never take your husband for granted. Find time each day to do something special for him and to remind him how much you love and care for him. The last thing a queen needs is to worry about is coming to her bedroom.”

I smiled. “For all the years of training, I’m thankful for your seeds of wisdom the most.”

A knock sounded at the door and I looked down to quickly assure I was presentable before inviting whoever was outside in. Landon, Phillip, father, Isabel, and Captain Evan came into the room.

Mother raised an eyebrow. “You couldn’t come in one at a time?”

Father chuckled. “We all have important things to say to Anna and I was afraid we would have a brawl choosing who came in first.”

I looked at Isabel and stretched out my arm to indicate she could join me in the bed.

“I brought you some fresh sweet rolls.”

I hugged her and bit into one as I realized how hungry I was.

The three men stood there with their mouths open.

Father frowned but his frown was fake. “I see where we all stand. A pretty young girl with sweet rolls and we all suddenly take second place.”

“I was merely helping you all decide who was to go first.”

Father sighed. “What part of stay back didn’t you understand?”

“Phillip and mother told me the realm was mine. I made an executive decision.”

“Did they now? Part of ruling a realm is knowing where you’re best needed. If you had died, who then would rule?”

“You could come out of retirement and Phillip is just as qualified as me to run the realm, father.”

Phillip frowned. “So that’s your plan so I get stuck with it? I’m grateful you put your faith in me, sis, but the realm is in better hands with you.”

The captain stepped forward and bowed low. “I, for one and speaking on behalf of my wife and children, thank you for your decision to come to my aid, for certainly I would have died without your intervention and your sword. Truly, this world has never seen such beauty, wisdom, and swordsmanship until this very moment. My sword and my men stand together to protect you and the realm.”

I wiped a tear from my cheek. “And my sword is at your disposal should you ever need it, Captain.”

Landon leaned over Isabel and kissed me. “Your quick actions saved the day, but I would be remiss in not standing with your father on this one. Until we are married, I know I have no hold on you, but I wish for our sake, you will heed warnings and concerns regarding your safety and health.”

Ignoring the people in the room, I slipped my hand behind his neck and ran my fingers through Landon’s hair. I pulled him to my lips. “Married or not, you have a hold on me. I fear not being by your side.”

“Then it’s settled. Whether we stay or we fight we do it together. For I would rather perish at your side than live a moment of this life without you.”

Landon kissed me passionately until Isabel squeezed a sweet roll up in between us. “I’m still here underneath you both.”

Landon sat on the side of the bed and held my hand.

I looked at each person that was so dear to me and smiled. “The doctors say I have to stay in bed for a few days. What of the alliance?”

Captain Evan provided the update. “Your plan worked exceptionally well. The alliance was caught in middle between our four forces. There were a few that escaped, but Eric and his men are tracking them down. We have received word from several realms that they have removed the alliance threat. Waredby and Shura are requesting support.”

“Phillip, you have connections in Waredby. As long as our borders are secured, you might wish to take some men to offer assistance to them. You can also take the opportunity to mutually reassess your marriage to Princess Faye.”

Phillip laughed. “You may be surprised, sis, that I have taken quite the fancy to Princess Faye. I’ll leave in the morning but promise to be back for all the upcoming events.”

“Events?”

Phillip held up his hand and started counting. “Let’s see. There is the coronation ball, your coronation, then the engagement ball, and your wedding. If you wish to continue pushing back the alliance, this will all be followed by the arrival of all the realm’s armies and ruling families and the associated planning meetings to reach the northern alliance before the snow melts.”

Isabel was excited. “Two balls, a coronation, and a wedding! I do get to go to these, right?”

I stroked her hair. “Maybe you could go in my place?”

Everyone laughed and I turned back to Phillip. “Hurry back, brother.”

Captain Evan interrupted us. “I’m sorry to leave you, my Princess, but we found much in the alliance headquarters. Saromy’s books and writings as well as his plans for the alliance. I would like to begin reviewing all of these.”

“Of course, Captain. Perhaps you could send me some of Saromy’s writings about his magic. If I’m to sit here for two days, I can’t just eat sweet rolls.”

Mother squeezed my hand. “You won’t be just sitting here. We have communications to send out and plans to discuss.”

Landon chuckled. “Better you than me, sweetheart.”

“What ever happened to live or die together?”

“Did I say that? I’m certain that was regarding fighting.”

“This will be the ultimate test for you to see if you still want me.”

Landon kissed me. “I’m all yours.”

“Enough already! How soon can we get these two married, my Queen? You don’t know how hard my life has been trying to keep them honorable.”

“A month, Isabel. Maybe two.”

Isabel rolled her eyes. “Ugh!”

***

I was surprised how much work I got accomplished while sitting in bed. The two days passed quickly with numerous planning meetings and reading through Saromy’s writings. Of note, Saromy eluded to his queen and mentor and her husband. There was little understanding as to who and where these people might be or even anything that enlightened us to Saromy’s background and history.

I read about his plans for eliminating me and how he would control the demon to do his bidding, but I was surprised the extent of the demon’s power that had even erased Arthur’s name from Saromy’s writings. I learned very little about the process, but I was happy with the way things turned out. I didn’t want to go back, but I had questioned myself as to whether I should have come forward as Anna as the meetings were relentless.

Luckily, I was now up and about and only had the slightest irritation from my thigh wound. This allowed me to move around and avoid congregations of people that would pry some decision from me. My first order of business was to take a carriage ride through the city. This would give me some needed fresh air and a chance for the citizens to see me.

Landon sat with me in the carriage as we made our rounds and stopped frequently for me to speak with the people. Unfortunately, words of my vastly exaggerated deeds had spread unhindered and unchallenged through the realm and having my sword and dagger on my hip did little to dissuade the rumors of the soon to be crowned fighting queen.

I leaned over to rest my head on Landon’s shoulder as we made our way back to the palace. “I could have enjoyed simply being your scullery maid.”

“I understand. Sometimes I regret not kidnapping you and running to some remote location to start our lives together. I can’t wait for us to be married and for you to bring me breakfast in bed.”

“You think that’s what’s going to happen?”

“You still need to pay off your debt.”

“It’s not my fault you never took my money. I offered to pay.”

“A copper a week averages one silver per four years. You’ll be in debt to me the rest of your life.”

“I guess you’re right. Breakfast in bed it is. However, I must inform you that since I’m still under your employ, I can’t marry you or sleep with you. It just wouldn’t be appropriate.”

“Maybe I haven’t thought this through enough.”

“Luckily, I have iron-clad willpower and, if you have seen the incoming letters, many offers from suitors.”

“So, if I do this…” Landon leaned in and kissed my neck below my ear.

I took in a shaky breath but restrained myself. “Nothing…”

“What about this?” He slid his hand slowly up my thigh.

“Three weeks, four days, and seven hours.”

Landon smiled. “I knew you couldn’t resist me.”

“I was merely counting the days until I would leave you at the altar.”

“Uh huh.”

***

Time passed quickly, and the next three days would be completely packed with events. Tonight, was the coronation and engagement ball that we opted to combine. Tomorrow I would be crowned queen and the following day was our wedding.

Royalty had been arriving in a constant stream and armies were trailing behind them and expected to arrive by the end of the following week. Phillip had returned with Princess Faye on his arm and in the middle of everything, I was fretting about my dress and wanting to make a good impression.

A knock sounded at my bedroom door and Isabel ran to open it.

A couple and their daughter stepped inside and bowed.

I recognized one of them. “Celeste!” I rushed over to hug her.

“Princess Anna, it is my honor to introduce you to my parents, Grace and Abner.”

“I’m very pleased to meet my favorite dressmakers in all the realms. How did this happen? How are you here?”

“Isabel sent us a communication. We just heard about the ball tonight, the coronation tomorrow, and your wedding. If you’re still needing clothing for them, we happen to have with us a few items you might appreciate. Of course, we presume much as we are sure you have found your clothing already.”

“By no means. Please, I’m dying to see what you have brought.”

***

I twisted back and forth watching the glittering silver fabric spin around with my hip movement. If anything, this dress was even more spectacular than the lavender one.

“It’s absolutely beautiful.”

Abner made a few quick adjustments and stepped back. “You realize that the citizens of Riverden will be heartbroken the wedding wasn’t there?”

“When all of this is over, I promise that Landon and I will make a trip and spend some time there. I do believe that once people see this dress, you may have to open a Blackfall store.”

“Celeste is more than capable of opening a store here. These are her newest designs. Grace and I were merely putting them together.”

“I hope I will see you at the events.”

“Sadly, we were not invited.”

“You are now. Just tell the guards that Princess Anna has authorized your access.” I turned to a table and wrote a quick note and handed it to them. “Since they remain overly protective of me, take this note just in case.” I looked at myself in the mirror and was extremely pleased. “What do I owe you?”

“Consider these dresses our gifts to you. You have more than paid for them with your generosity to us in the past and we will receive a hundred times the value from having the most beautiful woman in all the realms wear them as advertising.”

“I understand how much effort these took to make. Can I please offer you something?”

Abner shook his head. “They are our gifts to you. Think no more about it.”

***

Isabel had been so excited to be going to her first ball that she kept on asking repeatedly when we needed to arrive. I preferred to go a little after everything had started as I wanted to make sure Landon was already there first. Call it vain, but I wanted to impress him, and I enjoyed the feeling of the room full of people stopping to see me in my finest.

When the time finally arrived for us to ascend the staircase to the ballroom, I let Isabel go first. Her eyes were wide with wonder and excitement and she looked back at me with the largest smile I had ever seen.

“Announcing, Isabel of Blackfall.”

Isabel moved down the stairs to join the milling crowd as I stepped up to the announcer. This time he never even asked who I was.

“Announcing the lost Princess Anna of Blackfall, her Highness of Riverden, royal fiancé of Prince Landon of Riverden, and future Queen of Blackfall.”

It was all quite a mouthful. I paused slightly before taking my first steps down towards the ballroom floor. The room had gone silent and all eyes were on me. I concentrated on my steps to make sure I didn’t trip and fall and make a spectacle of myself. I spotted Landon making his way to the bottom of the stairs.

A guard next to me bowed low. He still had a bandage on his shoulder. “My Princess.”

I paused and turned to him. Taking his hand in mine, I thanked him for his service and rushing into the palace to secure more guards while he was wounded.

“You honor me, sir. You were truly courageous. Many lives were spared because of your bravery.”

The man stammered. “If not for you, my Princess, I would not have made it out of there alive.”

I smiled and curtsied to him which made him feel quite awkward. I completed my descent and Landon offered his hand.

“You look stunning, my love.”

I smiled and kissed him in front of everyone. “And you, my husband to be, look handsome and dashing. Just two more days and I am yours completely.”

Landon led me to the middle of the floor as the music started. No one would dance until we finished ours first. His hand slipped around my waist and I stared up into his eyes as he pulled me close. We spun slowly around the floor and for all the eyes I knew were upon me, I ignored them completely and focused on Landon.

“No change of heart yet?”

Landon smiled. “The only change of heart I have is in not wanting to wait another two days. You are everything I could ask for and more.”

“You don’t think you will tire of me one day?”

“Why would you ask such a thing?”

“I’ll not be a normal wife. I’m even wearing a dagger and I go around killing people.”

Landon laughed. “I can only imagine how wonderful it would be to be your dagger right now, because I see few places it could be hidden.”

“I’m serious. I’ve given my heart completely to you. I can’t think of anything more painful than to see you hurt or leave me.”

Landon paused us in the middle of the floor. His hands cupped my face and kissed me so passionately that I felt I would faint. “Nothing will ever take me from you.”

I smiled and pulled myself into his arms. With my hand, I waved people onto the dance floor. “I shake in your arms afraid that if I close my eyes the world will revert back, and you will be gone.”

“If anything, my love, I’m the one that should have those fears.”

“I’m not the same person you first met.”

“You’re that same person and even more. Have you heard the rumors that several kings have thrown their full support behind you to lead our combined forces?”

I shook my head. “There are many with far more experience than me.”

“They even have a new title they wish to bestow upon you. General of the Realms.”

I started laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“If they had only seen me that first day in Riverden covered in filth and pond scum…”

“They would have fallen in love with you like I did at that moment. You looked so regal and frail at the same time. It was endearing.”

I smiled and put my head on Landon’s shoulder trying to let the world fade away for a moment.

“May I cut in?”

I looked up to see Landon’s parents. With a quick squeeze of Landon’s hands, I curtsied to them both before hugging the Queen of Riverden. “When did you arrive?”

The queen held me at arm’s length. “Just a short while ago. You look breathtaking. I’m so grateful everything has worked out for you both.”

Richard held up his hands for me to take. I glanced at Landon who smiled and offered to dance with his mother.

Taking the king of Riverden’s hands in mine, I felt a little awkward.

“I’ve apologized before, but I must do so again. I’m dancing with my future daughter-in-law, the future Queen of Blackfall, and the General of the Realms. I couldn’t have been more wrong about you.”

“I’m just a frightened young woman that loves your son. Titles mean nothing to me.”

“What would you be frightened of?”

“That I fail to make Landon happy.”

“One thing I know is my son. I’ve never seen him so happy. I know that this isn’t the best time to talk politics, but I’m putting the armies of Riverden at your disposal and stand with the other kings supporting you as our general.”

I rolled my eyes a little. “I’m flattered you put your faith in me, but there are many kings and people before me that should lead our armies into battle.”

“Was it not you that uncovered the northern alliance plot? Was it not you that put yourself as bait to eliminate the Riverden threat? You told the realms what was happening. You got rid of Saromy. You came up with the idea to cross the Rorokn Pass in winter to take the northern reals off-guard. While you may not have direct experience, we all see the contributions you have made to keeping our people safe. I suspect you also have thought through what it will take to get our troops across the pass as well.”

“I have, but someone else can lead with my ideas.”

“In two days, you will be my daughter and a princess of Riverden. I was planning on transitioning our armies under both your leadership in any event. The kings will vote, but don’t be surprised when you find yourself in charge.”

I sighed. “I do get at least one day with your son first, right?”

Richard laughed. “One day… We’ll give you one day.”

***

I never danced so much in my life. After Landon’s father it was my father. Then it was the King of Torport, the King of Weredby, the Prince of Shura, Phillip, and too many others to name or count.

Today would be quite different and everything would change for me. I was paraded through the city in a carriage wearing a gold sequined gown and brought to the palace throne room. Royalty from the realm lined the room while citizens pressed up against the windows as I stepped up to my father and turned to face the crowd.

My father stepped forward and held a crown in his hands. He spoke loudly as he addressed the crowd. “I recall the day so many years ago that I took the throne of Blackfall. I can tell you I felt very unworthy and unprepared. My decision to step down as King of Blackfall has little to do with my recent illness that Saromy had set upon me, but rather in knowing it was time for me to pass my legacy on to one of my children.”

Father turned to me and stared into my eyes. He continued to speak loudly for all to hear. “A month ago, I believed my daughter to be dead, but the truth was that she had been taken from us by Saromy. In the time since she returned, she has proven herself to be worthy to be called Queen of Blackfall. Everyone in this room knows of her sacrifices for the people of the realms to free them from the threats of the northern alliance under Saromy’s leadership. What you haven’t seen is her heart, compassion, humility, and wisdom. Never before in the history of Blackfall has anyone been as worthy to receive this crown.”

Father raised the crown above my head and inwardly I cringed. He settled the crown on my head and leaned in to kiss my cheek before turning back to the people.

“I give to you, Queen Anna of Blackfall.”

As practiced, I stepped forward and waited for the cheering crowd to silence themselves. They waited patiently for my first words. I looked around the room to see Landon standing proudly and smiling. Isabel stood next to him and beamed her smile for all to see. Landon’s parents and my mother stood together. Phillip stood arm-in-arm with Princess Faye and he winked at me. I spotted Canter, who had come to Blackfall from Riverden, Eric the Ruthless, Captain Evan, and the guard that I protected in the battle. Riverden’s guards that protected us on our trip here were standing behind Landon. All these people that helped bring me to this day were here.

I took a deep breath. “Today, I become Queen of Blackfall but I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize those that helped me get here. First and foremost, I recognize my father and mother. Their wisdom and teaching over the years has proven invaluable, but it was their love that taught me the most. They showed me a love that was sacrificial, and this will be the foundation upon which I pray my reign will be recognized.”

“To those that believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself… Prince Landon of Riverden, my beloved husband to be, and Isabel, my steadfast friend…” A tear slipped down my cheek. “I am forever in your debt.”

Turning back to my father, I reached my hand to his bearded cheek. I spoke for all in the room. “I hereby name you, King Emeritus of Blackfall in honor for all that you have done for the people here.”

Turning back to the crowd, I looked at Phillip. “Phillip Sutton, Prince of Blackfall. You are more than a brother to me, and I know you would be a great and honorable king. You always have my ear as I need your sage advice more now than ever.”

Phillip tipped his head as I stepped down a few steps closer to the crowd.

“As you are aware, I am accepting this new role at a time of great challenges for all of us. My responsibilities lie first with the people of Blackfall, but we are all at risk from the ongoing threat of the northern alliance and I commit to all of you that Blackfall is your ally in this fight and will stand with you whenever your people are threatened. Although the alliance has recently suffered major setbacks with the death of Saromy and the defeat of their mercenary armies within our realms, they remain a concern. In two days…”

Landon coughed and I blushed.

“…three days…”

Everyone started laughing.

“…I would like to call upon the leadership of the realms to meet to plan our strategy to deal with the northern alliance. While we have grave and serious matters to decide upon, I hope that you will all come to Prince Landon’s and my wedding tomorrow and enjoy the hospitality of Blackfall.”

Blackfall guards started a chant that was quickly picked up by Riverden’s guards and the crowd. “Long live Queen Anna!”

For the next two hours, I mingled with kings, queens, and dignitaries of the realms. I then took a carriage ride through the city stopping at several squares for me to meet the citizens before being brought back to the palace for a royal feast.

It was late when I walked out onto the upper ramparts with Landon by my side.

“That was exhausting, Landon. Thank you for all your support throughout the day.”

“I had ulterior motivation to make sure you have some energy left for tomorrow.”

“We could still elope.”

“Our mothers would kill us. Are you worried?”

“About marrying you or what we may be doing a day from now?”

“Either.”

I turned to face Landon and kissed him. “The only thing I’m worried about is only having two days to enjoy you all to myself. Are you ready to become King of Blackfall?”

“I’ve been dreaming of being with you ever since you stole my horse. If I’m honest, I’m a little nervous. Not about being King of Blackfall because you still are the reigning ruler here, but about tomorrow night. I want it to be perfect and I’ve never even kissed another woman other than my mother.”

“I too have dreamed of you every night since we met. I look forward to being your wife and lover. Besides, winter is upon us and my bed is cold at night. I could use someone to warm my side of the bed before I get in.”

Landon smiled. “I’m looking forward to you serving me breakfast every morning.”

I laughed and kissed him once more. “I should go try to get some sleep.”

Landon grabbed my hand and held me fast. “I love you, Anna.”

“I love you too.”

***

“Wake up, my Queen!”

The exuberant shout was followed by a boisterous bounce on my bed as I cracked open an eye to see Isabel holding out a sweet roll.

“There’s lots to do today and you need your nourishment.”

“I couldn’t sleep in a little longer, Isabel?”

“Your mother and mother-in-law will be here soon.”

“Great. I now have three mothers.”

I sat up and patted the bed next to me. Isabel plopped down.

“I have a wedding present for you, Isabel.”

“A present for me?”

“I’ve spoken at length with Landon about this and he agrees. It is completely up to you, however.”

“What?”

“We would like to officially adopt you.”

Isabel started to cry. “Why would you want to adopt me?”

“Because we both love you, Isabel, and we want to make sure you always have a home.”

“How does this even work?”

“Once we are married, we can create official documents assigning Landon and me as your adoptive parents. You would officially become Princess Isabel of Blackfall and Riverden, but since you have no royal blood the chance of becoming queen would be remote. You would live with us here at the palace.”

“I would be a princess?”

“Yes.”

I was unprepared for the force of her tackle. “I would love to officially belong to you. Would I have to call you mother?”

I wrapped my arms around her and held her close. “Anna will be fine. It will take some time to make that happen, but you have made my day and it has just started. Do you have your dress picked out for today?”

“I do. Celeste gave me one to wear.”

My mothers knocked and entered my room. Isabel ran full speed into their arms. “I’m going to be a princess!”

It was touching to see mother give her a hug. “And a beautiful one you will make, Isabel.”

Mother came over and hugged me. “Let’s get you ready, Anna.”

***

If I had thought being crowned queen had been an elaborate affair, I would had been wrong once I compared it to having a royal wedding. My mother, mother-in-law, and Isabel worked tirelessly to shuttle me from appointment to appointment. When I was deemed to be ready, we were already running a little behind schedule.

Tradition in Blackfall placed the groom to be in the palace awaiting my arrival, and I was to take a long and circuitous route through the city by carriage. I had one chance at a break, two hours into the carriage ride before the officiating of the wedding was to start. Knowing the ceremony was ninety minutes long, I had purposefully reduced my liquid intake as just going to relieve myself was an ordeal with all the layers of white silk. This was, perhaps, the first time in months that I regretted no longer being a man, but that lasted no more than a few seconds at most. I was ready and eager to become Landon’s wife and the brief inconvenience was easily wiped away by a quick glance at my smile in the mirror.

Isabel met me at the top of the stairs. “Are you ready, Anna?”

“I’m ready for all this ceremony to be done with. Are you ready, Isabel?”

“Am I ever ready. No more chaperoning for me!”

“Then go on ahead. I’ll be right behind you.”

I waited as Isabel made her way up through the center aisle. Tens of thousands of people had come out to catch a glimpse of me on my way here and another thousand were crammed into the grand ballroom.

I took a deep breath to settle my nerves and stepped forward. The room went completely silent as all eyes turned to me. There were only one pair of eyes I was interested in now, and those eyes didn’t disappoint me. Landon stood at the end of the people-lined and flowered aisle dressed in all his finery. He was wearing white formal attire with gold trim. He looked dashing and handsome, but it was the look on his face when he saw me that took away all my nerves; for even from this distance I could see the overwhelming love and passion for me in his eyes.

***

The day had been long, and the marriage ceremony had been a blur of steps. I couldn’t remember much of the feast and dance that followed as I had been so focused on the slightest touch and glimpse from Landon throughout the proceedings that seemed to move us together and apart like a rapid cycle of ocean tides.

Finally, we took our leave of friends and family and rushed hand-in-hand through the palace up towards our newly appointed apartment. We were laughing and breathless as the guards stepped aside and opened the large double doors. Landon swept me up into his arms and carried me inside.

With the doors closed and our privacy secured, Landon placed me lightly upon my feet. I wrapped my arms around his neck and kissed him.

“I’ve wanted to do that all day, my husband.”

“It has been agonizing waiting for this moment. You look spectacular with your hair all up. It gives me so much access to your neck.”

Landon leaned in and began kissing my neck.

I moaned softly and turned my back to him. “There are so many layers to this dress. I think you should start taking it off now.”

I felt Landon’s fingers on the first few buttons and felt the lightest and gentlest touch of his fingers and lips against my skin. I shivered slightly in anticipation.

***

My wedding night had been amazing and indescribable. We had taken our time and made love, not once, but three times. I was still basking in the glory of being a woman. I had no fear with Landon, and he was both attentive and caring.

I had woken early and stared for a while at my sleeping husband. I was thrilled to be his. Getting up slowly as to not waken him, I made him some breakfast and carried the platter of succulent sweet rolls, fresh fruit, smoked pork, and eggs over to our bed. Landon was just stirring.

“Good morning, my love. As promised, I’ve brought you your breakfast in bed.”

Landon smiled and reached for the platter, setting it on a table next to the bed. “Did I say anything about food for breakfast?”

Landon reached up and grabbed me around my hips before rolling me breathlessly onto my back.

I smiled as I ran my fingers over his strong, bare back. “I could get used to this.”

“You’ve made me the happiest man alive, Anna.”

“As have you made me the happiest woman in all the realms. I’m yours now and forever.”

“I have a gift for you.”

“Beyond what I had a half dozen times last night?”

Landon laughed. “Yes. Get changed as I eat my breakfast. We’re going for a walk.”

After he ate and I changed, Landon led me through the palace and to the stables. We passed by my horse and Bandit before reaching another stall. Inside the stall was a magnificent black stallion that looked almost identical to Bandit.

“He’s beautiful.”

“He is Bandit’s younger brother. Trained by the same trainer. He’s yours.”

“Mine?”

“I had father bring him up from Riverden for you.”

“What’s his name?”

“Whatever you want to call him.”

The horse moved forward and gently rubbed his head against my hand. I stroked his cheek. “I think I’ll call you Raven.”

***

Our days of privacy had far too quickly come to an end. The leaders of the realms were clamoring for a meeting as their armies were now arriving. It was with much regret that we left our bedroom to begin our lives as King and Queen of Blackfall and Prince and Princess of Riverden.

The first order of business was to gather everyone together and after converting the ballroom into a planning hall. Landon and I greeted each person as they arrived and took their seats. I had rather hoped that father, Phillip, Captain Evan, or anyone would take the lead, but everyone waited patiently for me to begin.

Standing, I addressed them all. “We are gathered here today to discuss the continued threat from the northern allied realms. Thank you all for feeding me information that you discovered when removing the alliance units from your own realms. Using this information, we have pieced together a rough timeline and plans that Saromy and the northern alliance had for us all. It appears that the efforts of the alliance were to disrupt our realms during our spring festivals. Mercenary armies would have attacked us while the northern realm armies swept down from the north. We can only assume that knowledge of the alliance defeat in our realms has not reached the northern kings and they are still making plans for their attack in the spring.”

The king of Shura stood. “We have brought our armies here at great expense at your request, Queen Anna. In my opinion, the threat has now passed, and the northern realms have lost their advantage. I will defer to the group consensus and while I am grateful for your exposing this plan, I am skeptical any of us should take their orders from you, an untried, young woman.”

There was little agreement with the king of Shura and conversations quickly eroded.

“I will be the first to agree with you, King Raymond. There are many here far more qualified than me to lead.”

Richard stood. “It is my opinion that Queen Anna is more than qualified, King Raymond. Shura is the realm furthest away from the northern threat and would be the least concerned about the northern alliance, but I can guarantee you if Blackfall is defeated, we will all fall one by one. I say we vote on her leadership skills once we have listened to her proposal.”

The king of Shura waved his hand for me to proceed.

“Before you all is a map of the northern realms and the possible routes to them. The least technical and lowest pass into the north is through the Rorkon Pass. Any small group trying to reach the north through the pass in winter would quickly be overwhelmed by the depth of the snow. I propose we build snowshoes for four hundred and fifty men. One hundred and fifty large, medium, and small snowshoes. Our men would take turns forging the path with the largest snowshoes first. They would be followed by one hundred and fifty men on medium-sized snowshoes, the men on small snowshoes, and finally our horses. This will effectively beat down a path for the rest of us.”

“In addition, I have drawn up plans to convert our wagons to sleds by removing the wheels and laying them flat under the wagons with covers and attachments to give their front edges some curve. This way we can travel as far as we can with wheels before converting the wagons to sleighs and back again on the far side of the pass.”

“I’m estimating ten days to cross the pass and we should plan on enough food and supplies for one month, including firewood and shelters. From the north end of the Rorkon Pass, the road splits northwest and northeast. The two main cities are only a day’s journey from the Rorkon Pass. We wait there and send scouts to assess the situations in the realms. Upon their return and final strategic planning, I suggest we divide the armies into two and under cover of darkness attempt to reach each of the main cities to begin a simultaneous coordinated attack on both realms.”

King Justin of Torport stood. “I have reviewed the initial plans with Queen Anna and find no reason to doubt the success of this venture. I will remind my colleagues of what Queen Anna and Blackfall have already done to support us and to help us eliminate significant threats to our realms. Also, we have all seen the documentation and I fear that Saromy may still have only been a major player in the northern alliance attacks on our sovereignty. He eludes to his queen and king. This could indicate that the type of magic Saromy wielded could be even greater by his queen mentor. We’ve seen that the mercenaries and northern units in our realms were well funded. I don’t believe we have seen the end of this, and I vote to put my faith in Queen Anna to lead us.”

***

“How did the meeting go, Anna?”

I sighed as I looked over at Isabel. Landon slipped his hands around my waist and answered for me.

“Before you now stands the General of the Realms.”

Isabel laughed. “Just make sure I get to go to the balls before you are introduced as they will be all over by the time they get through all your titles.”

I rolled my eyes. “It wasn’t necessary. They could have had a joint commission to lead the armies.”

“They believe in you, Anna, as do all of us.”

“What about me? Do I go with you?”

I stroked Isabel’s hair. “Not this time. I need you here to take care of the palace.”

Isabel frowned. “I don’t like the idea of you both going to war.”

“Neither do I, but better that we go now that we can gain an advantage rather than having them come to us. Assuming all goes well, then we can be back in a few months.”

Isabel hugged me tightly.

***

The trip over the Rorkon Pass had been grueling, but all the preparations had worked out well. We set up a temporary camp for our ten thousand troops just below the snow line and sent scouts into the realms. Now we waited on pins and needles for the longer we stayed, the more likely word would reach the northern alliance that we were here.

While we waited, I worked out strategies for various outcomes of our scouts’ reports, but I was only speculating on what we might face. I did this to keep busy, but I was far from unoccupied. Being General of the Realms was a significant responsibility and I had a never-ending stream of kings, captains, and generals at my tent.

“You need a break.”

Glancing at Landon, I knew he was right. We had so little time to ourselves since our wedding. “What do you have in mind?”

“A walk. I know we can’t go far.”

I took his hand and we slipped out of the tent. I wrapped my cloak tighter about myself and looked down at the green valley below us. “For some reason I always believed these realms were frozen solid in winter. I can only imagine the warmth of the sun down there right now.”

“It’s very much like Riverden. Winter doesn’t hit our realm very hard. How are you holding up?”

“I miss Isabel and everyone back at the palace and ever since I was assigned General of the Realms, there seems to be no time between making decisions.”

“You’re doing an amazing job. Even the kings that were unhappy with you have come around. Your careful planning has really paid off and they see that. You have remarkable insight and wisdom.”

“I think it is more likely that no one else wanted the job. How are you doing with all of this? We haven’t had much time alone together. I feel guilty.”

“I envision what is coming and I’m fearful you might get hurt. I see how people put their trust in you and it makes me proud. I keep pinching myself to assure that I’m not dreaming. You are mine and I couldn’t be happier.”

“I don’t like being the center of attention. Maybe when all this is over, and you and I are living in a world of peace you will get bored.”

“There is no chance I will ever get bored with you. You’re amazing.”

I pulled Landon to me and kissed him. He wrapped his strong arms around me.

“Sorry to interrupt, General Anna, but our scouts have returned.”

“Thank you, Captain. I’ll be right there.”

***

“One of the realms is nearly empty of people, General Anna. The other realm is mobilizing a large and formidable army. We found them marching through the fields. We estimate they have six thousand fighters and…”

“And what?”

“They had huge beasts with them. Maybe five in total. We’ve never seen anything like them before. Flames dance along their arms. They carry spiked clubs larger than a man.”

I frowned. “We can only assume Saromy’s king and queen are here then and that somehow they have created these magical beasts. Show me on the map where they are now.”

The scout pointed at the location which was still close to the second northern realm’s main city, Mistmire.

The kings and generals in the tent were concerned and rightly so.

“We still have them outnumbered, but the beasts are something we can’t tell their strength until we get into a fight. The land between us and them is open and there is no chance we can surprise them or lure them into better ground that is to our advantage. We either turn around now and go back home or meet them head on.”

***

The odds were in our favor and we had come to protect our lands. Returning would have set us back and given the northern alliance more time to prepare. Here and now, we had a chance. The kings unanimously decided to go to battle.

I divided our army into five units. Landon and I would lead the bulk of the force straight at the northern alliance. Phillip would lead a unit of horses and archers to our eastern flank and king Justin would do the same for the western flank. Two other units would peel off mine moving slightly west and east into the alliance battle line.

We stood just outside of bow range across the field from the northern alliance. Morning mist hung in the air and I could see my breath from the chill. I reached over to take Landon’s hand in mine and raised my voice.

“Armies of the realms! We fight today to end the tyranny of the northern alliance. Look to your left and to your right. Each person next to you has family, loved ones, and children. We fight today to protect those that we love! Stay calm during battle! Watch your position and don’t overextend yourself! We are one army and those before us will not prevail!”

A shout arose across the army and I slowly lowered my sword to point at the northern alliance.

“To victory!”

We started out slowly and built our speed as we raced across the field. The northern alliance was less organized and ran full-speed towards us.

“Hold formation!”

Our army held our W formation. Phillip and Justin began sweeping around the flanks as Landon and I became the point of the spear. We slammed into the northern alliance and cut deep into their ranks. My sword was moving quickly as I sat astride Raven. Our horse battalion made a wide swath through the enemy ranks and our fighters on the ground attacked those we left in our wake.

Phillip’s men open fired with their bows as did Justin’s and the alliance fell back. We were winning.

Suddenly, a roar sounded above the clash of arms and to my left and I could see one of the alliance beasts. It swept its giant club back and forth creating waves of fire. One beast was like a hundred men and our ranks began to falter before the fierceness of the creatures.

“General Anna! It’s no use against them. Nothing seems to stop them!”

It was at this moment that Raven faltered and I was thrown to the ground. Landon was fighting his own battle and I was surrounded by the enemy. Drawing my dagger, I got myself to my feet and fought for all I was worth. I was holding my ground when the alliance men fell to the side to get out of the way of one of the beasts that strode towards me with purpose and intent.

I stood alone with the massive creature before me. It looked down on me and swung its heavy club. I held up my raven sword in a feeble attempt to block it. Fire fell all around me, but as soon as it did, the flames swirled and were pulled into my blade.

Inspired by what I had just seen, I stepped forward towards the beast. My raven sword held high. Its eyes glowing red. The beast hesitated then swung its club again. Stepping closer, I swung my sword and it collided with the club. Fire erupted all around us, but my sword held. I smiled as I realized the beasts were truly magical and my blade was absorbing the creature’s energy.

With a shout, I rushed the beast and began cutting into the creature’s arms, legs, and torso. Every cut gave my sword, and my sword arm more strength; every slice made my raven sword’s eyes glow brighter. The beast staggered before me and fell. I jumped up onto its massive chest and plunged my sword into its heart.

A cheer sounded around me. From my vantage point, I could see another of the beasts. These were my targets now. “Pull back from the beasts! Lead them to me!”

Jumping from the body of the creature, I crashed into alliance men and swung my sword in a wide arc. Like the clubs of the beasts, my sword now caused flames to burst around me, and the alliance fighters were thrown back like rag dolls. The magic of the beast was unleashed on their own army as I made my way to the next.

One by one the giant beasts fell to my sword and with the last one lying dead at my feet, the realm’s army was defeated and their remaining men ran from us in all directions.

Landon made it to my side and wiped the blood away from my face. “You won the day, my love.”

“We won the day together, Landon. If it had not been for this demon sword, I fear we would have lost.”

Soon the kings and leaders of our realms were standing around me inquiring as to what we should do next.

“I suggest we set up camp here. We should tend to our wounded first, then provide medical care to the northern alliance wounded. I’ll take a thousand men and head into the city. We need to restore authority there.”

The king of Shura frowned. “Why treat their wounded? They are enemies.”

“Nothing about this war is normal. Did you see the look in their eyes as we fought them? They were frightened and I don’t think they were as frightened of us as they were of their own leaders. We’ve had peace with the north before, and it is my belief that leaders cause wars, not the general population. If we are to secure these lands, having the support of the people will be imperative and leaving them to die on the battlefield will not help our cause.”

The king of Shura tipped his head and stepped back.

“All right then. Landon, Phillip, Captain Evan, select the men we need and get them organized. We leave for the city in an hour.”

***

It felt good to be back on Raven’s back as we made the short ride to the city gates. The city of Mistmire was considered the oldest city in all the realms. As we approached the gates, we spotted fighters scrambling to get out of our way, but other citizens smiled and waved.

Landon yelled back to the men following us. “Keep an eye out for archers on top of buildings and in windows!”

We slowed our pace, surprised the gates were wide open for our arrival. I looked up at the magnificently architected stone walls and archway as we passed underneath them. Before us the roadway opened into a wide, cobblestone street that led my eyes to the edifices of the main city courtyard and the palace beyond.

Mistmire had been beautiful once. We passed by weed infested garden islands that appeared at regular intervals in the middle of the street. Dried up water fountains and litter-filled canals were plentiful. Beyond the enormous open stone-tiled courtyard, unkept gardens led to the palace.

We encountered no threats on our way in. Pausing our large band of men and horses in the courtyard, I turned to Captain Evan.

“Captain, take several hundred men and take the southern avenue only to circle back to the palace entrance. Phillip, you do the same for the north. We will continue forward and meet you both at the palace.”

I waited for them to leave before urging Raven forward and around a massive water feature to reconnect with the road that led through the gardens to the palace. We saw many people cast their eyes upon us only to look fearfully back to the palace before averting their eyes and moving inside their homes and businesses.

We paused at the grand entrance at the palace walls for Phillip and Captain Evans to arrive with their men.

“Nothing out of the ordinary to report, My Queen.”

I frowned. “Which seems to be out of the ordinary. Is it possible they threw everything they had at us on the battlefield?”

Landon pointed to a tall spire rising above the palace. “I’m certain I saw someone up there just now. From that vantage point, the entire battlefield would be visible.”

I dismounted Raven and patted his neck.

“We can only assume Saromy’s queen and king will be inside and surrounded by their most loyal subjects. Until pressed, Saromy always let others do his work for him. He would have learned this from his mentors. It was only at the end did Saromy expose himself to me. Be at the ready. We enter the palace cautiously. Watch the floors, walls, and doorways for magical markings and traps.”

I drew my sword as I led our small army across the inner courtyard to the palace doors. With every careful step, I marveled at the grand scale of the place. Blackfall’s palace was large, but Mistmire’s was at least twice the size. The main double doors to the palace and the public ballroom beyond were thirty feet high and twenty feet wide and made of stone with wooden inlays.

Pausing at the top of the stairs, I turned to the men. “Has anyone ever been here before?”

Captain Evan stepped forward. “Once, when I was a young boy. If I recall, the throne room lies beyond the ballroom, but that is as much as I can remember.”

“All right. Fan out.”

As I stepped inside, my eyes gravitated towards the opulent glass roof of the ballroom. Its stained-glass pattern reminded me of an enormous rose. Even with the lack of maintenance, the place was spectacularly beautiful. Forcing my eyes to watch where I was stepping, I made my way across the dirty, but polished stone tiles.

At the far end of the ballroom, two massive doors matching the entrance to the ballroom rose majestically before us. These doors were inlaid with gold.

“Captain Evan. See if you and your men can get these doors open.”

The Captain waived a dozen men over, but they were quite surprised when the doors easy opened at the lightest touch. The room beyond was lavish with gold inlays on every column and piece of trim. In an ornate throne on the far side of the room reclined an old woman dressed in iridescent, jeweled, black clothing. A crown of gold seemed oddly out of place on her white-haired head; her arm rested casually on one leg that was draped over the side of the throne. Her withered hands were covered in golden rings. I could see no one else in the room.

“Queen Anna of Blackfall, General of the Realms… Welcome to Mistmire.”

For her age, her voice was strong and regal. Her words hinted at her hidden disdain.

I held my place. “How do you know me?”

“My magic created you. You are what you are because of me.”

“It was Saromy, not you. Who are you?”

Her ageless gray eyes flashed with anger. “Saromy…” She cackled. “He was nothing more than a useful tool that used my magic. I am Yezraid, Queen of all the realms. You can kneel now.”

“I’m sure you have seen that we have defeated your army. We do not recognize your authority.”

“Bah! An army of useless twits with no heart for blood. Defeating them is not the same as defeating me. I offer you this choice, Anna. Join me. You have proven to be resourceful and intelligent. I will make you my right hand, leader of all the people of the realms. Do this and I will spare your loved ones.”

Landon growled and stepped forward. I rushed after him, but it was too late. The doors slammed shut behind us locking Landon and me inside the throne room and our men on the other side.

In the center of the throne room, a flame flickered and began twisting into a larger and larger shape. The demon that Saromy had called was insignificant compared to this creature. As the creature formed, a man with a crown and a dozen guards stepped out from behind the throne.

Yezraid laughed.

With a roar that shook the very foundations of the city, the massive demon rose before us. Yezraid’s guards began fanning out around her. My initial thought was to run around the demon and kill Yezraid, but a massing fist slammed into the ground in front of me blocking my path. Molten fire splashed around me.

I had no idea if my sword would work against a demon. Glancing back at Landon, I could see fear in his eyes. It wasn’t the fear of the demon, it was fear of losing me.

I looked down past my heaving chest and to my battle-stained clothes. I didn’t want to lose my life and everything that meant so much to me.

“Yield, Anna, Queen of Blackfall. When Saromy created you, the fool had no idea what he was doing. His control over his demon wasn’t strong enough and a new destiny was forged; a destiny where you became the convergence of past, present, and future. Only you could bring together the realms. Only you could secure the alliances and thwart my desires. There are only two outcomes, Anna. You yield to me and live, or you die and with your death the realms will fall.”

I looked up to see Landon staring at me. His eyes were pained. “Don’t yield, Anna.”

I whispered my love for Landon before turning my gaze back to the demon before me, I raised my sword and rushed straight for it. Before I could even make it to the center of the throne room, its mighty arm moved to bat me away like a harmless fly.

I held my ground and swung my sword down, surprised to see the mighty demon hand slice away and skitter across the floor in a burst of flames. The demon roared and focused its gaze on my sword.

“That’s a demon sword! It belongs in my world!”

Looking down at the sword and the demon now hesitating, I moved forward, slicing back and forth. The demon screamed and moved away from my attacks, rushing headlong into half of Yezraid’s guards. The slightest touch of the demon caused them to burst into flames.

This was different than fighting the magical beasts. Hitting the demon with my sword cut like any normal blade would, but the sword wasn’t absorbing power or magic. I had to be very careful as any touch of the beast would incinerate me. I was in the fight of my life.

In the meantime, I heard the clash of swords behind me. Landon was engaged with several guards and what I assumed to be Saromy’s king.

Dodging a swipe of the demon’s hand, I rolled, spun, and sliced across a fiery leg. The demon lurched and fell towards the throne.

Yezraid screamed and scampered away from the throne and I closed on the demon.

I paused before the demon and saw the fear in its eyes. “Leave now and I will let you live.”

The demon’s eyes were dark as they turned to Yezraid. “I cannot.”

Without hesitation, I lifted my sword and sliced through the neck of the beast. The demon’s head rolled free from its flaming body and came to rest at Yezraid’s feet.

“No!” Yezraid creamed in fury.

Turning away from the woman, I rushed to Landon’s aid. The fighting was intense as the guards turned to focus their efforts on me. Six blades parried, thrust, and swung towards me. My sword danced back and forth, but I had little left to give and I was slowly being pushed back around the throne room.

Landon and the king continued to battle back and forth.

I was pressed hard by the guards but I was only making small wounds on my attackers when I heard Landon’s shout.

“Anna! Behind you!”

I noticed too late that Yezraid had snuck up behind me. I caught the flash of light off her upraised dagger. I felt it dig into my shoulder, but instead of a death blow, it stopped short. Spinning around, I saw Yezraid crash into the throne room wall. Landon’s sword had speared her with enough force to knock her back.

Now off balance and falling backward, I was in desperate trouble. The guards seeing their opportunity, thrust forward to end my life. That was until Landon crashed into their side tackling them into each other. It was a brave and selfless act, but one that saved my life. Scrambling to my feet, I redoubled my efforts and dispatched several guards before they regained their footing.

“Landon!”

I skewered a guard’s sword hilt near my feet and flicked it up into the air. Landon rolled and caught the sword, using it to finish one of the guards with his follow through. Together we finished the guards quickly before turning to see the king pulling Landon’s sword from Yezraid.

Yezraid screamed, grabbed for the king, and they both vanished before our eyes in a billow of smoke.

The door to the throne room opened and our men rushed inside.

I ignored them all and clung to Landon. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I ignored the pain in my shoulder and kissed him. We held each other in silence.

“What happened in here? There are burned bodies, scorch marks, and blood everywhere.”

Landon opened his mouth to reply to Phillip, but I shut it with a kiss.

“Are we in danger, my Queen?”

“Mmmm?”

I sighed and broke away from Landon long enough to respond to everyone. “Search the palace for Yezraid and her husband, however, I doubt you will find them. We had a bit of a fight, not sure if Yezraid got away alive. She was wounded pretty badly.”

“There were also lots of guards and an exceptionally large demon…” Landon added.

“A demon? You fought a demon?”

I shrugged. “It sounds more interesting than it was. Had to be here, I guess. Send a runner to the armies that the city appears safe. They should begin sending units to stay here and the other city. No sense them living out on the meadow.”

Landon was fiddling with my shoulder.

“I’m fine thanks to you. You saved me.”

“I’m selfish that way.”

I smiled and snuggled into his embrace. “I think a nice bath and soft bed is in order.”

***

The leadership of the realms’ armies refused to let Landon and me stay anywhere other than the royal chambers of Mistmire’s palace. With the realms taking control of the city and rumors that Yezraid and her husband were no more, the people had welcomed us with open arms and in short order things were being organized.

I moaned softly as my muscles told me I had spent too many hours fighting yesterday. Rolling over I came face-to-face with Landon who was staring at me.

“How can you look so beautiful after all we’ve been through the past few days?”

I smiled knowing I would never get tired of hearing things like that from Landon. “We have to talk about your stunt in the throne room.”

Landon raised and eyebrow. “I wasn’t aware I had performed any stunts.”

“A swordfight generally becomes suicide when one party willingly lets go of their sword.”

“I was in a good place with the King and I couldn’t let Yezraid kill you. Strategically, it seemed like the right move. With Yezraid skewered, the King abandoned his fight with me leaving me free to tackle the guards. Now, if you really want to talk about stunts, should I bring up the fact you ran straight in to attack a demon?”

“I had the only sword that could hurt it.”

“But you never knew that before you attacked.”

“I couldn’t risk you being killed. There is nothing in this world more important to me than you.”

“Then you understand why I willingly gave up my sword, for I feel the same way about you.”

Landon rolled me onto my back and started kissing me when we were interrupted by a loud knock at the door.

Through the thick gold and wooden doors, we could hear the muffled voice of Captain Evan. “My Queen, the leadership is assembled in the throne room awaiting their orders.”

I sighed. “I guess we need to finish this discussion later.”

Landon replied by kissing my neck more. “They can wait another few minutes.”

***

I was grateful to have brought with me several outfits for the trip. I had changed into the one set of clean travel clothes I had left. It was almost like a real dress but I longed to get back into something more elegant.

We entered the throne room and I was immediately set upon by dozens of the realms’ leaders. Some demanded to return home, others wanted to give status updates, and more than a few were checking on my health and wellbeing.

“Please, everyone take a seat. Captain Evan. Do you have any updates on the whereabouts of Queen Yezraid and her husband?”

“We’ve completely covered the palace and have found no sign of them. The city will take longer. I have teams moving throughout the districts and we should know more by the end of the day.”

“Thank you. Yezraid was gravely wounded in our fight yesterday. I suspect she may have used her remaining magic to leave the city for good. Prince Phillip. How are our men doing?”

“Remarkably well, my Queen. They are in good spirits and our wounded are comfortable.”

“King Justin. What have you discovered about the disposition of the citizens?”

“The fighters have all yielded to us and have pledged their allegiance to the new Queen. The citizens have been living in fear of Yezraid and welcome us with anything they can spare.”

“New Queen?”

King Justin tipped his head and looked back at the other kings and leaders of the realms before turning sheepishly back towards me. “My apologies, Queen Anna. The leadership of the realms have put their full faith in you. Although they feel the northern realms should remain neutrally accessible to all realms, leadership must be in place. Your name has been proposed to become Queen of a newly merged northern realm.”

“Me?”

Phillip stepped forward. “I’m sorry, sis, but this may be partially my own fault. As the discussions were being held, several mentioned the turnaround of Riverden and Blackfall’s criminal underground and I mentioned how you managed to persuade the crime bosses to take on regular business ventures. Since these realms have a significant amount of criminal activity, it was proposed you could have lasting influence on the economy and culture here.”

“I had plans for them, but these things transpired on their own. How can I remain Queen of Blackfall and of a newly merged realm of the north at the same time?”

Landon smiled like he usually did. “Not to mention being Princess of Riverden and General of the Realms.”

I rolled my eyes at him.

King Justin offered a solution. “The way we see it, Queen Anna, is that Riverden would need to make adjustments as would Blackfall. I have suggested you remain Queen of Blackfall, but while you are away, Phillip will rule in your stead and that Riverden would find a new general for their armies. Once the realms’ armies are disbanded there will also no longer be a need for a General of the Realms.”

I looked at Landon and sighed. “I can’t make this decision on my own. You must wait until I have had a chance to confer in private with King Landon.”

“Certainly, but please do not take long as the people of the north need someone to lead them.”

“In the meantime, I assume you are looking for orders?”

They all nodded.

“I know some of you may wish to head home, but the pass is still snowbound. I’d like each of you to discuss your needs with your men. If I, or anyone, needs to restore the north, we will need resources and people to do so. How many fighters remained of the northern alliance?”

“About three thousand, my Queen.”

“I assume these men were from both northern realms so if we were to split them up and send half to the other realm, we would have fifteen hundred per realm. I ask that, through the summer, we keep a peacekeeping force of three thousand here in the north. In case any uprising occurs, we then have enough to deal with them.”

Again, everyone nodded in agreement.

“Based upon your agreement, we must move into securing the realms. I need several army units to travel to the second main northern realm, communicate what has occurred here, and establish the new line of authority. We need to continue sweeping the city for dissidents and for Jezraid. The rest of you, please discuss amongst yourselves who will return over the pass and send out communications to our families at home.”

***

After the meeting Landon and I headed back to our room for some privacy. We stood on a deck that overlooked the city.

I felt Landon’s fingers lightly brush away my hair from my eyes. They lingered on my exposed neck. His touch always sent a wave of warmth through my body. Reaching up, I clasped his hand in mine and pulled his hand to my lips.

“You’re a natural leader, Anna. You handle kings and captains so easily. You’re gifted in making wise decisions.”

“Is this your way of telling me to become queen of the north?”

Landon pointed down and into the city. “I can’t deny the impact you have on people. Riverden Is a better place because of you. Blackfall has also been transformed. You are like a pool of fresh, clean, water in the middle of a barren desert to anyone that meets you. I want nothing more than to keep you for myself; to whisk you away somewhere. But I look at the lost eyes of the people here and can think of no other person than you to bring life back to them.”

I shook my head. “You flatter me when I am not deserving. This decision weighs heavily upon me. It impacts many lives. Isabel, Phillip, you, your parents, my parents, and so many others. Do you think Isabel would be happy here?”

“Are you kidding? Isabel will only be happy where you are and look at this place. It’s spectacular.”

“I don’t know, Landon.”

“We could ask the King of Shura to take over here. I’m certain he would love to expand his realm.”

I grimaced. “I remember a time I told you I should run away to Shura. Everyone knows how mismanaged Shura is. If I needed to disappear into obscurity, Shura is where I would go. Look at this place, Landon. These two realms combined are three times larger than Blackfall and Riverden combined. The time and effort it will take to rebuild here…”

“You can’t do it alone, Anna. Riverden and Blackfall will support you.”

“Us… If we do this, then you and I will be equals.”

“So, it’s decided then?”

“Are you certain you wish to take on this challenge?”

“Only if you are.”

***

Two months had passed, and Landon and I were returning from Theinia, the second major city of the combined realms. It had been hard work establishing a new governing structure, but the people of the north were warm and welcoming, offering their support on every decision we made. In short order, the two northern realms, under the direction of returning realm elders that had been banished under Jezraid, officially became Starfell with two capital cities of Mistmire and Theinia.

Most of the realms’ armies and kings forged a path south a month ago and now that the passes were free from snow, many visitors had begun arriving. Phillip had left to oversee the trip across the pass back to Blackfall, but Captain Evan had decided to stay on with us, for which we were eternally grateful.

Landon and I halted our caravan on a ridge that looked down upon Mistmire. Spring had come in glorious fashion and the meadows that had once been covered in blood, bloomed with spring flowers as far as the eye could see. It was beautiful here. In the distance, Mistmire rose from the valley floor like a shining city from children’s bedtime stories. Slowly, its darkened facades were being stripped clean, revealing polished marble and sparkling granites.

Landon pointed ahead to a lone horseman racing towards us in the distance.

I looked over at Landon and smiled. “Let’s see if Bandit can keep up.”

Spurring Raven into a gallop, I raced forward to meet the horseman. We skidded to a stop and I leapt from Raven’s back and ran to embrace Isabel.

“Isabel! I’ve missed you so much!”

Soon Landon joined us and wrapped us both in his strong arms.

Wiping tears from my eyes, I kissed Isabel on her forehead.

“I’m so glad you’re both safe. I got here a week ago and have been watching for your return.”

“I believe a celebration is in order. I’m so glad to see you, Isabel. I love your dress. Is that new?”

Isabel beamed and spun. “Celeste designed it for me. It’s partly formal but makes it easier to ride. She came with me to check out the northern cities to see if there is a market for her clothing here. I brought many of your clothes as well. I figured you might need them.”

After many more hugs, we climbed back onto our horses and Isabel rode side-by-side with us into Mistmire.

As we entered the main square it was as if the entire city had come out to greet us. Over the months, the atmosphere of the city had begun to change. The people were dressed in their finest, and they were joyful. As Mistmire was slowly restored it seemed as if the people were as well.

Squires came to take our horses and Isabel took Landon and my arms in hers as we walked towards the palace.

One of the city elders approached us and bowed. “My King and Queen. Welcome home.”

I smiled at the man. “It is an honor to be welcomed by you, Elder Peadrus.”

“I bring a request, Queen Anna. It has been many years since Mistmire has celebrated the spring festival. Would you allow the citizens to organize the event, culminating in a ball?”

“Of course!”

Peadrus bowed. “You’re very kind, my Queen.”

Peadrus stepped aside and we continued to the palace gates. Another surprise awaited me there. Both our parents were waiting for us. I rushed up the stairs and fell into my parents’ arms.

Mother stroked my hair gently. “I will never get over how beautiful you have become.”

Father looked healthy and relaxed. “We thought you might need a hand up here. We’re here as long as you need us. Phillip sends his regards, by the way.”

“I miss him. How is he doing now that he has Blackfall to run in my absence?”

“He is doing a marvelous job but reminded me to tell you that you are still Queen of Blackfall and have responsibilities.”

“For that, we should just make him King of Blackfall as punishment.”

I felt warm arms wrap around me and turned to face Landon’s mother.

“I have to hug my favorite daughter-in-law.”

I laughed. “I’m your only daughter-in-law.”

“That just makes it easiest for you to be my favorite. We’re here for you both as well. If you need any help, but we will need to return to Riverden in a few months.”

“I wish you both could stay.”

“Even the person that threw you into my dungeon?”

I reached out and hugged the king of Riverden. “Yes. Especially you.”

I sniffed and wiped away a few tears before reaching for them all and hugging them tight. “I feel like I’ve finally come home.”

***

“You are going to break hearts across the realms tonight, my Queen.”

I breathed out a little as my dress was cinched up from behind. Before me stood a woman of impeccable grace and stunning beauty. Her long dark hair was tastefully styled; her eyes bright as sapphires. She wore an ivory dress with inlaid mother-of-pearl. The dress accentuated her trim waist and ample breasts. While I recognized the reflection in the mirror was me, I still found it hard to believe everything that had transpired. It was as if my life as Arthur was more of a dream to me now.

“Only your dresses can make me anything special, Celeste. I’m afraid your talents will become renowned worldwide and one day I will never be able to afford these pieces of art.”

Celeste spun me around and grinned. “As long as you remain my advertising, I’ll do very well, thank you.” Celeste shook her head. “Had I only known the day you first came into the store in Riverden who you were…”

“I didn’t know who I was myself.”

“Look at you now. Queen of the world.”

I laughed. “You’re just like Landon. Always exaggerating. I never asked for any of it.”

“I love your humility, my Queen. You’re missing something.” Celeste turned and picked up a platinum and diamond encrusted crown and placed it on my head. “You’re all set. Now go turn some heads tonight.”

I hugged Celeste tight. “I’m so glad you’re here. You are going to the ball, right?”

“I’ll be there.”

I stepped out into a waiting room where Isabel was sitting. She looked stunning in another one of Celeste’s wondrous dresses.

Isabel whistled. “Just remember to let me go in first so I can draw a little attention before you get there.”

I extended an arm to her. “You look beautiful, Isabel.” I paused. “I get the joy of telling you that your adoption is official.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

Isabel nearly tackled me with her hug.

“You need something to complete your outfit.” I pulled out a small, but exquisite tiara and placed it on her head. “Welcome to the family, Isabel.”

Isabel’s smile was infectious as she made her way up the stairs to the announcer of the ball.

“Announcing Princess Isabel of Starfell, Princess of Blackfall, and Princess of Riverden.”

Isabel turned and whispered an “I love you” to me and scampered down the stairs into the ballroom.

I paused a moment and held my breath. So much had changed in my life. I was Anna Sutton. My husband Landon waited for me inside the ballroom. I have an adopted daughter. There was nothing holding me back. No fear about my future. I was exactly who I should have been born to be.

Lifting my chin, I smiled with anticipation and stepped up to the announcer.

***

It had only been six months since the armies of the south had invaded Mistmire. Ciaran cast his dark eyes towards the distant palace.

Ciaran muttered to himself. “Everything had been fine until they arrived. I had a living. Food. I was worth something before Queen Anna arrived.”

Thieves were no longer welcome in the realm of Starfell. Queen Anna had seen about the rehabilitation of the criminal underground.

Ciaran turned towards the north and made his way into the thick forest. At fourteen years of age, he had been on his own most of his life. He was determined to find his place in this world.

As the days turned into weeks, Ciaran travelled north until he came to a rise and looked down upon an ancient castle. His food pack had grown light over his travels and he saw everything he needed to replenish his stocks.

Keeping to the shadows, Ciaran made his way to the lichen-covered walls of the ancient structure. A small dusty window exposed a torch-lit room beyond. On a wooden table were books and vials, but what really caught his eye was the fresh loaf of bread and the gold coins in a rough wooden bowl.

With practiced stealth, Ciaran pried the window open and slipped silently to the cold stone floor. He was hungry, but his hand moved to the gold first.

As his fingers brushed the cool metal coins, the room burst forth with light. Drawing his dagger and spinning around, an old woman grabbed his wrist with supernatural strength. Try as he might, Ciaran couldn’t wrest his arm free from her grasp.

“How dare you steal from me!” The old woman cackled.

The woman peered into Ciaran’s eyes and a crooked smile came to her mouth. “Yes… You’ll do nicely. I need some help around here.”

Ciaran took in the room and stared at the old woman. His eyes narrowed. “You’re Queen Jezraid.”

She spat to the side. “A queen no more, but I will be once again.”

“If you plan on killing Queen Anna, then let me serve you. For unlike the sheep of Mistmire, I detest her for what she has done to me.”

Once again Jezraid cackled. “Yes… Yes… You will do just fine.”

***

***

Writing takes a lot of time and effort. I write to whisk myself away into another world, another life. Not that my life is bad, but that my life is not what I believe it should be.

I hope you are taken away when you read my stories. That for a moment in your life you envision yourself free from everything that holds you back.

Please take a moment and leave a comment. I love hearing from you.

Casey Brooke



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