I had been riding all day, and the sun was now starting to set in spectacular streaks of red and orange across the plains. But still I pressed on, too afraid to stop. A howl rose above the sound of the wind, and I shivered from more than just the cold. Did that call sound closer than the last?
A second and then a third wolf took up the chorus, and I decided they were definitely closer. What would happen when night fell? Maybe I should stop and try to light a fire now. Would the flames be enough to keep them away from me and my mount? I looked at the emptiness surrounding me. Where would I find fuel for a fire in this desolation?
Sophie? Where are you now? It’s starting to get dark. My twin’s projection sounded in my mind and broke me from my panicked thoughts.
I took a calming breath before answering. I’m riding, there’s still plenty of light left here. The fear had been mounting all day, but I had tried to keep it out of my projections to Lily. She was worried enough about me as it was. But it was hard to keep the emotion away from my words, especially when I was sending my thoughts directly into her mind. She almost certainly suspected the truth, but she also knew I wasn’t going to change my mind and turn back.
He promised I would be safe, I reminded myself. My new betrothed. He promised. The exact words of his missive had been, ‘I cannot stop you sending an escort, of course, but only my betrothed is guaranteed safe passage’. Not exactly an encouraging message, but it had explicitly guaranteed my safety. And, since he had demanded I come alone and immediately, he could hardly fault me for stepping outside of his directions. Which meant my current predicament was entirely his fault.
My twin’s earlier warnings repeated in my mind. He’s a monster! A beast! You can’t trust him.
She was right, of course. At least as far as we knew. And I didn’t trust him, not at all. But I did trust in the power of the ancient laws. The ones that created a formal, binding betrothal between the ruler or heir who called a Princess Tourney and the princess who won the secretive competition. The laws that bound every person in these lands and decreed that not even the one who had called the Tourney could disrupt the subsequent betrothal. Which surely included not letting the bride-to-be get eaten by wolves.
I had seen the power of this ancient magic all too clearly during the long weeks of the Tourney—the competition Lily and I had been forced into when we arrived in these lands. Our diplomatic delegation from our own kingdom of Arcadia in the Four Kingdoms had arrived at just the wrong moment. And since the High King himself had set up the Tourney many generations ago, we had been unable to escape it. I had seen the ancient magic create realms and bring them crashing down. I had even seen it hold back death. It was this same magic that had apparently cursed the Beast’s kingdom of Palinar. Surely it could also keep me safe.
And so, here I was, riding my horse all alone through an empty wilderness while wolves howled around me. Not exactly a promising beginning to a betrothal. But the ominous words of my new fiancé’s message had been clear. Only I was safe. Only I was protected by the Tourney.
And it wouldn’t have been only guards accompanying me if I had waited. My twin Lily and her new betrothed, Crown Prince Jonathan of Marin, would have insisted on coming as well. Who knew how many lives might have been lost in their efforts to protect me?
Where are you going to spend the night? Lily’s worried projection reminded me that she was still adjusting to the whole idea of me going off on my own. I hadn’t exactly discussed it with her when I had snuck out of the palace on a stolen horse. I stroked the neck of my mare, Chestnut. I had befriended her weeks ago, and she had happily accompanied me today. The poor thing hadn’t known what she was getting herself into, of course.
I’ll let you know when I work that out, I responded, injecting some humor into my projection. It gave me comfort to carry my twin’s presence with me in my mind, even if she could offer no practical assistance. We had never been apart before, and I liked the reminder that we were still connected. That we had a link no one could break, a Christening gift from our godmother. A greater bond than ever twins have shared before.
And with our old nanny having passed away, only Jon knew of the secret connection between Lily and me that had resulted from our gift. Which meant this Beast was wrong if he thought he could isolate me from the rest of the kingdoms by asking me to come alone. My betrothed had secrets aplenty, but I brought some of my own with me.
The sun had almost disappeared below the horizon now, and I could still see neither shelter nor fuel for a fire. A flash of movement made me whip my head around, but the plains appeared empty. The mare faltered and then picked up her pace without being asked. I crouched low over her neck, encouraging her speed, and peeked under my arm.
Another flash of movement, and this time I caught a glimpse of gray. A wolf! My breath quickened, and the horse must have picked up my tension since she increased her speed even more. I looked again but could now see nothing. How did they hide themselves in this vast emptiness? More of the magic of the curse, I supposed.
My heart beat wildly, and I tried to calculate how much strength remained in my mare. She had alternated between a walk and a trot all day, so she couldn’t have much stamina left. I guessed she was running on instinct and fear right now and not much else.
I scanned the horizon again, searching for something, anything. The final rays of the setting sun blinded me and made the landscape strange and unfamiliar. I squinted through it, not sure what I was even hoping to see.
A black dot wavered against the light and seemed to grow bigger. Its shape looked unnatural, too square to be an animal and far too large to be a wolf, so I nudged the mare, angling her toward it. As it grew even bigger, I glanced back again and this time got a clear glimpse of two gray shapes racing after us.
My horse ran at a full gallop now, and my hair and dress streamed behind me. Even so, we neared the approaching object at a surprising pace. It was clearly moving toward us as fast as we rushed toward it.
I began to pull up on the reins just as the last of the sun slipped below the horizon and the blinding light disappeared. The mare responded reluctantly as I blinked in the twilight haze and tried to understand what I was seeing.
The object, a large traveling carriage, had also slowed, so that we both came to a stop at the point of meeting. I twisted in the saddle, but the only sign I could see of my pursuers was a whisk of gray tail before they disappeared off into the fast encroaching darkness. I turned back to the carriage.
The coach itself looked perfectly ordinary, and yet I couldn’t stop staring at it. No horses pulled it, and no coachman directed it. It stood still in the middle of this strange wilderness, as if it had arrived at a prearranged stop.
“Good evening,” I called, tentatively. No one responded. I looked around again, but the wolves had not returned. Whatever this strange apparition, it seemed to offer us some protection from them.
I swung down from Chestnut, keeping a tight hold on the reins, and approached the window. I couldn’t see the inside in the evening gloom, so I took a deep breath and opened the door. I reached out toward Lily in my mind as I did so, anticipating the need for extra courage, but nothing greeted me except the empty inside of a carriage.
What? What is it? She responded instantly, clearly on edge.
I…I don’t know.
What do you mean?
I chewed on a loose strand of hair as I peered inside, wondering if I’d missed something. I’ve found a carriage. But it’s empty.
In the middle of that wasteland everyone is always talking about? Maybe someone abandoned it when their party got attacked by bears or something. She didn’t sound happy.
Maybe…Except it drove up to me.
It drove up to you? Well ask the coachman then. Lily sounded a little exasperated now.
There isn’t a coachman. Or horses. The carriage just arrived on its own.
What?! That’s it. I’m coming after you. She didn’t say anything else, but she hadn’t completely cut off the projection toward me, either. And I knew her well enough to read the emotions she was sending. I could easily imagine the scene: Lily jumping up, ready to storm off into the night, and poor Jon being left to guess at the content of our silent conversation. After a moment, her emotions calmed and then changed. I cut the connection on my end, too tense to cope with her new feelings of tenderness and love. Obviously, Jon had managed to talk her down.
I spotted a piece of parchment resting on the floor of the carriage and leaned awkwardly in to pick it up. Every minute the light faded more, so I rushed to read it.
To my betrothed,
This carriage will provide you, and only you, safe passage to my castle. It is the official carriage of the royal family of Palinar and nothing in this land will harm you while you are inside. Tie your horse behind, and it will remain safe also. Sleep inside the carriage, and do not attempt to alight at night.
I frowned and went back to the beginning, but I could barely make out the words in the increasing darkness. And I didn’t want to waste the remaining moments of dim light. Hurrying, I unsaddled Chestnut, thrusting the saddle and saddlebags into the carriage. I rubbed her down and secured her to the back.
The whole thing was madness. Utter madness. But I had no choice. The plains had offered no other option, and the wolves had run away at the arrival of this magical vehicle. I stepped inside just as blackness overtook my surroundings.
I waited a moment, but no magical light appeared to break the dark. Too bad. I groped blindly through my saddlebags and managed to cobble together an evening meal by feel. I didn’t bother attempting to wash or tidy myself in any way, what would be the point? I explained the situation to Lily as I ate, glad to be able to project and chew at the same time.
She seemed incredulous but accepting. Perhaps you’re right, she projected with a sigh. Perhaps this betrothed of yours will protect you.
Don’t sound so unhappy about it!
She laughed at that, before sighing again. I just wish you hadn’t gone off on your own.
I didn’t bother to reply. We’d already spent over an hour discussing it earlier in the day, and my muscles ached after a full day in the saddle. It had been too long since I’d had the opportunity to go for a long ride, and my body was out of practice. I arranged myself as comfortably as possible on one of the seats of the carriage.
Goodnight Sophie. Her warmth settled around me like a long hug, and I sent the same comfort back to her. She had no idea how much I wished she could have been here in person. Despite her presence in my mind, I had never felt so alone. I had never been so alone.
Perhaps it was that loneliness that shaped my dreams. Because as I drifted off to sleep, I could have sworn I heard the familiar chatter of servants. Only these ones seemed to be discussing me. Apparently, they found me beautiful enough, although for what they didn’t say. It was my strength they doubted. I wanted to be outraged—I had fought my way through a grueling Tourney and then braved the wastelands alone to get here—but I was already sinking deeper into dreamless sleep. And maybe the dream voices were right. They came from my own subconscious after all, and who knew me better than myself?