Rowena was almost ready to leave.
She was dressed in her brother's clothes—a black long-sleeved shirt with a loose tunic layered over it, a pair of brown pants held up by a belt, and a thick cloak. She stuffed scraps of cloth into the toes of his leather boots so they would fit better, and laced them as tightly as she could. She'd swiped food from the kitchens and tucked it into her pack along with a few extra articles of clothing and her book. She'd braided her long black hair. She had also slung her bow and arrows across her shoulder and fastened her brother's dagger to her belt. It was ostentatious, with sapphires and the family seal on its hilt, but she thought it might come in handy.
Finally, she turned to her dressing table, her gaze lingering on her mother's small silver hand mirror. Rowena knew she wouldn't need it, but the mirror was the only token she had of a mother she'd never known. She'd been told many times that she was the spitting image of her mother. She couldn't help picking it up, as she had done so often, and imagining she saw her mother looking back at her.
As she gazed into her own eyes, her thoughts turned back to the earlier fight with her father. She suddenly felt the well of resentment, hurt, and fear building up inside her. She didn't know if she would ever return to this castle. These stone walls had been both her home and her prison. If her father disinherited her for this, dug up a bastard cousin to rule as she had suggested, it was possible she would never see them again.
She wasn't sure if she felt like screaming or crying, but whatever her emotions were, they were starting to boil out of control.
And Rowena strove to keep her emotions under control for a reason.
She heard the door open behind her, but before she could turn to see who it was, the mirror inexplicably exploded in her hands. Shards of glass stung her palms and rained down onto the floor.
She spun around, eyes wide with fear as she tried to figure out to whom she'd exposed her terrible secret. The chambermaid was standing there, and Rowena thought perhaps the girl looked even more startled than she did. She was clutching the door tightly, her face pale.
“Close the door!” Rowena snapped, once she had recovered enough to think rationally. The girl quickly did as told, then took a few hesitant steps forward.
“You didn't see a thing
,” Rowena hissed, her survival instincts kicking in. She knew there was no logical explanation for what had just occurred. Except perhaps witchcraft, an offense worthy of being burned at the stake. She'd studied it as best she could, had tried her best to keep her anger in check because that seemed to be the main cause of the strange incidents. But they kept happening.
She'd just never been seen until now.
The chambermaid seemed to hesitate, then walked forward and knelt to gather the pieces of glass in her apron. Rowena remained where she was, her posture rigid and defensive. A bright drop of blood from her hands landed on the piece of glass the chambermaid was reaching for, and the girl looked up quickly, her forehead creasing in concern.
Rowena didn't really know why the girl was concerned for a witch
. Why hadn't she run out of the room in fear? Her behavior hardly made sense. Rowena realized for the first time that she was also dressed in her brother's clothes, carrying a pack, clearly about to sneak off somewhere. It angered her that the maid suddenly had so much power over her.
This girl knew far, far too much.
The chambermaid finished her task, then stood and looked at Rowena for a long moment as though trying to make up her mind.
“You don't have to worry,” the girl said finally. “I won't tell a soul about what I saw. Or about... what you're wearing.”
“Why should I believe you?” Rowena asked harshly.
“Because... give me your hands. Please, my lady.” The maid held out her own expectantly.
Rowena paused for a long moment, automatically suspicious. But she couldn't think of any nefarious plot that made sense, so she slowly held out her wounded hands. The maid took them in her own, then closed her eyes. She took a deep breath and frowned deeply as though she was concentrating very hard on something.
After a moment, Rowena felt the pain leaving her hands. She looked down and gasped at what she saw—the torn flesh was miraculously mending itself. When it was over, her skin was smooth and clear, and the pain was completely gone.
She stared at the chambermaid, who opened her eyes and leaned against a bedpost to support herself.
“You're like me, then,” Rowena said wonderingly. “That was... incredible. Thank you.”
“Gladly, my lady,” the chambermaid replied, smiling weakly and looking relieved at Rowena's reaction.
“I don't suppose... What's your name?”
Rowena paused, expression thoughtful. “I don't suppose you would like you come with me, Helga? You're smart, you've realized that I'm running away from home.”
“May I ask why, my lady?”
“My father wants to force me into marriage,” Rowena said bitterly. “And I cannot abide it.”
Helga nodded slowly. “Please don't take this the wrong way, my lady, but do not think I can accept.”
“Why not?” Rowena asked, trying to hide her disappointment. She would have liked someone with healing powers, someone she could trust, to accompany her on the long journey ahead. And she did trust this Helga already, though she didn't quite understand why. There was just something warm and reassuring about the girl's lovely, open face. Rowena was not a trusting woman, but Helga seemed like the sort of person who would never let you down, never betray you.
“I have my grandparents to feed. I always send them most of my earnings,” Helga explained.
Rowena frowned, then dug around in her pack until she drew out a small leather pouch. “Now, it's your turn to hold out your hands,” she said.
Helga's eyes widened, but she obeyed. Rowena emptied about half of the pouch's contents into the maid's hands, all bright gold coins. Helga stared down at money, looking shocked.
“What's wrong?” Rowena asked, brow crinkling. “It's not enough? I can give you more—”
“No!” Helga protested quickly. “No, my lady, this is—this is far too much. I can't possibly accept—”
“You can, and you will,” Rowena interjected firmly. “I'm asking far to much of you, by dragging you along on this journey with me. I don't even know where I'll go, or how long it will last. You deserve all that and more.”
Helga fell silent, then finally closed her hands over the coins as though accepting defeat. “Thank you, my lady. I'll send this to my family. They'll be so grateful.” She smiled, and Rowena was shocked to see what looked like unshed tears shimmering in her eyes.
“I'm sorry, I'm just... I'm crying because I'm happy,” Helga murmured, somehow instinctively knowing that Rowena needed an explanation.
The cold, aloof princess who didn't understand emotions, who needed them explained to her because they were so alien. She was the most intelligent, learned person in the land, but she couldn't understand something as simple as crying for happiness. Everyone knew that Rowena didn't have a heart, or a conscience, or much humanity to speak of. It was common knowledge.
Still, she nodded and relaxed slightly. For some reason, the outlook of her life seemed far better now that Helga would be joining her. She wouldn't have to brave the strange new world alone.
Godric couldn't stop shaking.
It was hours since Gemma had stopped breathing, hours since he'd clung to her desperately while a meaningless cacophony of voices tried to soothe him. Hours since they'd pried his stiff fingers from her and took her away. Hours since Rowan and Jacquelyn had heeded his angry shouts and left him alone in the room with nothing but the sound of his own unsteady breaths, each more difficult than the last.
This horrible thing called loss was far worse than any physical torture man could design.
He opened his eyes when the first rays of sunlight filtered into the room. It didn't seem right that the sun should be rising now, when Gemma was dead. The day should be gray and tempestuous, if it had to come at all. Better that the world live in endless night, now. He didn't want his little sister to miss anything beautiful in the world.
He choked back a sob. He'd thought the tears had stopped, that he'd run out of tears, but perhaps he never would. He was too numb to feel any shame for crying in front of the others. What did it matter? He'd failed to protect Gemma, the only thing he cared about at all. He hated himself.
With a great effort, he lifted himself off the floor and slowly stepped over to the window. The rising sun set the sky afire, awash with orange and red. He looked again at the mountains, the view that longing had imprinted on the back of his mind. Gemma's words returned to him, and her plea that he try to become a knight.
How could he, though? It wasn't that simple. He could barely will himself to get up off a filthy floor, let alone drag himself across the countryside in a journey that would take at least three days by horse and much, much longer by foot. And from a practical standpoint, he didn't have a horse, he didn't have armor, weapons, or provisions. It was impossible.
He knew instantly that Gemma would call him a coward for thinking that way. Not to be cruel, but gently honest, as she'd always been with him. She'd say he was making up excuses out of fear.
And it was true that he was afraid.
He turned away from the window, a decision settling on his shoulders. A heavy decision, like lead to bear, but the right one. So he hoped. He dried his face and left the room. He only had a few belongings to retrieve from the squires' quarters, but he didn't know if he could face Rowan and the others. He didn't want to see their faces, grim with pity, while his own clearly displayed his pain. He was too proud for it, maybe, or maybe facing pity would just be like rubbing salt in the wound.
Godric pressed himself against the wall once he was close, straining to make out any noise from the room. There was nothing, so he crept in. He was relieved to see he'd been right—the room was empty, the squires having already risen to begin their day's work. He picked up his bundle of clothes and his father's tarnished pocketwatch, the only object he'd always refused to sell even though it had never worked. Godric had honored his father's wishes after his death and kept it. Just like he was trying to honor Gemma's wishes, now. He shivered.
After one last glance around the room, a silent goodbye, Godric left. He made his way through the corridors, attempting to be as silent as he could. It was wrong to leave like this, without formally resigning. He could never return and ask for his job back. But maybe that was just the push he needed, to be forced out into the world, alone, friendless, and homeless. There were too many painful memories here, now.
He was hurrying across the courtyard, now bright with the morning sun, when a voice stopped him.
“Godric? Where are you going?” It was Jacquelyn.
He turned around, feeling slightly guilty. “I'm... I'm leaving.”
“When will you be back?”
“I don't mean to come back,” he said carefully, recalling what Aubrey had said the previous day about Jacquelyn loving him. The effect of his words was instantaneous. She looked startled and distressed, though she tried to hide it.
“And you're just... you're just leaving like that? Without even saying goodbye to your friends?” Her voice was reproachful.
Godric hung his head. “I don't think I could... I don't think I can. I'm sorry.”
She took a step forward, tendrils of long brown hair dancing in the breeze. “It's alright. It's alright, I'll tell them for you, and they'll understand,” she said gently. She began to reach for him, then apparently thought better of it and dropped her arm. “Where are you going?”
“Ravenclaw Castle. Gemma wanted me to try to become a knight. It was her dying...” he trailed off, shocked that he'd uttered the word. Dying wish.
The words had such a horrible finality about them.
“It was very important to her,” Jacquelyn finished for him, smiling sadly. “She's been talking about it for years. She'd be so happy, Godric.”
He swallowed and looked away. “I hope so.” Then he looked up, suddenly feeling very keenly that this would be the last time he would ever speak to Jacquelyn, and that he owed her something, after how long she'd loved him without ever receiving anything in return. “Thank you. You were always so good to Gemma. And I'm, I'm sorry that I couldn't...”
“You don't owe me an apology. I wish you all the best, Godric,” she replied softly. He reached out and squeezed her hand. They remained linked for a long moment, gazing into each others' eyes as a substitute for all the things they couldn't express aloud.
“JACQUELYN! WHERE ARE YOU WITH THAT WATER, GIRL?”
They jumped simultaneously at the yell from the kitchens, their hands breaking apart. Jacquelyn took one step back, then paused a moment. “I have to go, and so do you. Goodbye.”
“Farewell,” he said, then he turned and walked away without looking back.
“Can you ride?” Rowena hissed from the darkness, somewhere to Helga's left.
“I can, my lady. I grew up around horses,” Helga replied, her voice barely a whisper. She reached up and adjusted the hood that covered her flame-red hair. She was wearing more of Peter's clothes, and carried a sack full of supplies on her back.
As they waited for the stable boys to fall asleep, she tried to take stock of her emotions. Was she a fool for agreeing to accompany the fleeing princess? She was abandoning her position here, a position that had been extremely hard to come by. There were dozens of country maidens eager to trade manual labor in their family's fields for work in the king's household.
Helga had only gotten the job because Lord Ravenclaw owed her deceased father a debt of gratitude. Still, Rowena had more than compensated Helga for the loss of her position.
Ultimately, Helga realized that she couldn't have made any other choice. She'd watched the princess for so many months, had seen how constricted and trapped she was. Rowena was like a bird in a cage. She had so much potential, so much power, yet her father refused to let her use any of it. Helga thought it would have killed Rowena to live in that cold, high tower much longer.
She'd also noticed Rowena's vulnerability and humanity, though it seemed to have escaped the rest of the court. She'd seen Rowena mourn after her brother's death. Rowena was powerful, yes, but not as indestructible as she appeared.
And perhaps it was arrogant to think so, but Helga felt, for some reason, that she
could help this lost princess.
“Come!” Rowena ordered, suddenly melting out of the dark and darting into a pool of moonlight.
Helga followed obediently, and they silently saddled two horses. She took the reins of her own, a wiry gray mare, while Rowena waited beside a tall black steed. They led the horses outside. Helga continuously stroked her mare's nose and whispered soothingly into its ear, trying to keep it quiet. Rowena's horse knew her well, though, and seemed to recognize the need for silence instinctively.
It was still dark as they rode away from the castle, but after a few hours, the sun began drifting upwards of the horizon.
“Soon they'll notice I'm gone, and begin searching for me in earnest,” Rowena called, her dark eyebrows slanting in concern. “We have to move faster.”
“Yes, my lady,” Helga replied, spurring on her horse as the princess did the same. She was thankful now, more than ever, that she was a good rider. Otherwise she was quite sure Rowena would easily and nonchalantly leave her behind in the dust.
“You don't have to call me 'lady' out here,” Rowena said after a moment, glancing over. “I'm not a lady, I'm just another peasant girl. We are equals now.”
“Yes, my—yes, Rowena,” Helga said, smiling nervously when she stumbled over her companion's name. “I'm sorry, it just—it feels strange.”
“It does feel a little strange to hear you call me that,” Rowena mused thoughtfully. “But we'll grow accustomed to it before long. It's not just about putting us on equal standing, it's a precaution. We have to travel under the radar to avoid detection by my father's knights, and one country maid calling another 'lady' would surely arouse suspicion.”
Helga nodded, inwardly impressed at how thoroughly the princess had considered all the variables. It was a little reassuring to know that Rowena wasn't taking them on some kind of wild, aimless journey. She must have a plan. Well, Helga hoped
she had a plan.
“Um, Rowena?” she ventured cautiously.
“Do you... what will you do, now? Do you know where you're going?” She felt horribly impertinent, questioning a princess like that. She almost regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth... But Rowena had
said they were equals.
“I'm going to get as far away as I can. Then I will live in exile until such time as my father declares me his true heir or he dies and I must raise an army to reclaim my birthright,” the dark-haired girl said calmly. She didn't seem to mind answering Helga's question. Her voice had adopted an icy tone, but Helga hoped Rowena's anger was directed at her father rather than herself.
“Well, I think you're very brave,” Helga said admiringly, before she could stop herself. She immediately blushed, cheeks turning almost as deeply red as her hair.
“That's kind of you to say,” Rowena replied, and seemed to survey Helga carefully for a moment. “I am only asking you to accompany me to my final destination, wherever that may be, and I will compensate you accordingly. But... if you want...”
Helga tightened her grip on her reins and looked over, surprised to hear hesitation in the young woman's voice. It was unusual for Rowena to be unsure about anything.
“If you'd like to remain with me after that, I would be most grateful. But please do not feel obligated,” the princess finished, her tone oddly formal.
“I'll stay with you until you get your rightful title back. I'll just keep following you, if you'll let me,” Helga said, again too impulsively, but the happiness that spread across Rowena's face was unmistakeable.
“I would be honored,” Rowena answered, unsuccessfully trying to hide a smile.
They rode hard for the rest of the day, moving quickly across mostly flat terrain. Helga dropped her hood to let her hair fly in the breeze like a bright crimson banner. She tilted her head towards the sun, smiling lightly as its warmth caressed her face. It was late summer but still fairly warm—before long, though, the leaves would abandon their lofty perches and the ground would be hard and cold. Winter was a fierce adversary, and she hoped she and Rowena would be finished their travels and installed somewhere safe in a few month's time.
Rowena glanced over, and after a moment's hesitation in which she seemed to struggle over reproaching Helga or following suit, dropped her own hood too. Her hair was much longer than Helga's, which only reached just past her shoulders. Rowena's braid rippled out behind her, black strands shining in the light.
The princess permitted herself a smile while Helga laughed infectiously.
“So you can
let your hair down!” Helga exclaimed impetuously. She waited for Rowena to be offended, but the dark-haired girl just looked amused.
“Indeed I can, though it may surprise you,” she retorted with a mischievous grin.
After the sun set, they rode for a few more hours before Rowena slowed upon reaching a tiny hamlet. They had ridden through dozens of villages that looked just the same, but this one had a small building with a sign that proclaimed it an inn for travelers.
Helga followed suit as Rowena dismounted and tied up their horses at a tree near the edge of town. Rowena started for the inn immediately, but Helga hung back on the pretense of still untying her horse's knapsack. Once Rowena had disappeared into the building, Helga approached a group of children playing nearby.
“Would you watch our horses for the night?” she called sweetly.
A skinny, grimy boy sauntered up and gave her a toothy grin. His lank, unwashed hair hung in front of his eyes. “Got any coins, lady?”
Helga grinned faintly and opened her hand to show a handful of the bright coins Rowena had given her. She'd sent most of it to her family, but saved a few... just in case.
“Oh! Yes, lady, I'll watch your horses,” the boy exclaimed greedily, reaching out. Just as he was about to take them, Helga closed her fingers over the money firmly.
“One now. The rest in the morning, when I'm back for them,” she said calmly, dropping a single coin in the boy's palm. He looked disappointed, but not nearly disappointed enough.
Helga leaned down, quirking an eyebrow. “And if you're thinking the horses will fetch more money than this, you're wrong. All they will fetch you is trouble, because if you try to sell them, we will
She casually flipped over the blanket on her horse, revealing a pattern of Ravenclaw crests. “My friend is a very powerful, very important lady.”
The boy's eyes widened, and he nodded frantically, his fingers closing tightly over the coin. Helga almost felt sorry for scaring him, but she knew full well he'd have stolen the horses if she had not done so. She'd been a child just like him growing up, after all. Hungry and desperate. She'd never stooped to stealing horses, only small things like bread, but if things had gotten worse for her family she might have considered it.
It was not in Helga's nature to steal, but an empty stomach was a powerful motivator. Powerful enough to distort one's character.
She also felt a little guilty about not calling Rowena back to teach her this lesson—that perhaps she should be teaching Rowena how to survive outside of her privileged, sheltered life. But she still felt somehow shy about presuming to teach a princess anything
She started to walk away, then paused and glanced back. “Oh, and keep my lady's identity to yourself, or you'll see naught but the inside of a dungeon cell for the rest of your life.”
The boy nodded again, then scrambled up the tree to act as lookout, rigidly vigilant. She'd frightened him even more. She felt a nagging guilt as she walked away, but forgot all about it as she neared the bright tavern.
There would be even more
to worry about in there.
Warm light spilled out the door into the dirt street along with loud laughter, singing, and clinking glasses. Helga squared her shoulders and stepped inside.
She glanced around, frowning lightly and looking for her companion's hooded head in the chaos. When she finally alighted on Rowena, she was somehow not surprised to find the princess haggling with the innkeeper, a large, balding man whose face was quickly turning red with frustration.
than enough for these
accommodations,” Rowena was saying fiercely. Helga approached, touching the girl's shoulder lightly to get her attention.
She discovered that the innkeeper was, indeed, asking a considerably higher sum than such places usually demanded. Rowena was too obviously wealthy. Even Helga could see it straightaway in her mannerisms, vocabulary, and bearing.
And this was bad for two reasons—not only was the innkeeper trying to swindle them, the argument was drawing too much attention to the companions. In spite of their male clothing, it was clear that they were the only women in the place.
And now they were rich
, as well. Helga bit her lip.
“Sir, we have very little,” she attempted with an edge of desperation. Rowena fell silent and looked over at her. Then, as she caught on (the princess was so clever, Helga marveled again), her head whipped back around and she set her sharp gaze on the innkeeper.
“My friend is right,” Rowena said, voice soft in spite of the intensity of her eyes. “I was once wealthy, but my husband gambled away everything we had. He was thrown in debtors prison. If you do not take the money I have offered, you condemn us to a night spent out in the cold.”
“It would be better to take what we are offering than receive nothing at all, would it not?” Helga added reasonably.
The man looked back and forth between them, his eyes narrowed. Helga doubted he truly believed their ruse, but he could see they wouldn't be budged from his usual rate. He wouldn't get any more from them, short of taking it by force...
“Fine,” he grumbled, taking Rowena's money. Helga glanced over at the princess, quirking an eyebrow and suppressing a triumphant grin. The corner of Rowena's mouth twitched as though she, too, were trying hard not to smile.
The innkeeper led the pair to a small bedroom on the second floor. The wooden floor creaked loudly, and Helga trod lightly, irrationally afraid that every step would send the whole building crashing down around their ears.
The room they were given was tiny, with only a single narrow bed hardly large enough for one, let alone two. Helga turned to protest, but the innkeeper was already slamming the door in her face.
They lit a candle and shared bread and cheese from the knapsacks. When they were finished, Rowena kicked off her shoes and yawned. She flopped onto the bed, turned her face towards the wall, and was asleep within moments.
Helga stared blankly.
Certainly, she had not meant to take the bed for herself—had intended to protest vehemently if Rowena offered it—but still.
Rowena had proclaimed them equals.
She sighed as she spread a thin blanket and some extra clothes across the floor. She supposed old habits were hard to break, and being told you were superior to everyone else for 19 years had to affect a person. Rowena had taken the bed automatically, without thinking first. She hadn't been intentionally
Satisfied with this explanation, Helga slipped under the blanket and pulled it up to her chin. She stared up at the ceiling, eyes glittering in the dark, for a long time. It was partially because trying to get comfortable on the hard floor was an impossible task. But she also couldn't stop thinking about the way the men in the tavern had looked at them.
Like vultures circling their next meal, waiting patiently for it to die—or in she and Rowena's case, to let their guard down.
Falling asleep certainly qualified as letting one's guard down.
She rolled over fitfully, trying to convince herself that she was being ridiculous and paranoid. She couldn't quite shake her unease, but the fatigue seeped into her bones, dragged her eyelids down. Before long she, too, had succumbed to exhaustion.
Seconds later, or perhaps hours, Helga's eyes flew open. She felt cold and clammy. And confused. Why had she woken up?
Then she heard it again—the faint sound of boards creaking under human weight out in the hall. She sat up, her limbs thrumming with fear. She listened hard for another moment, but all was silent. It's just the building settling,
she admonished herself.
And then she was proved so utterly wrong that she would have laughed hysterically if she weren't so afraid. The knob turned softly, the door creaked open, and Helga found herself staring at the dark outlines of two large men in the doorway.
She tried to shout, but her mouth wasn't working properly. One of the men immediately strode towards her, and she scrambled backwards until she collided painfully with the wall. The other bent over their knapsacks and began rifling through their belongings.
She finally found the ability to speak as the first man seized her, his large hands hot and sweaty around her wrists. She struggled frantically, but his unbreakable grip held her still.
“Rowena!” she screamed, her voice shattering the silence. She heard a movement from the bed, a rustling of sheets.
Then the man restraining Helga threw her backwards abruptly, and pain exploded on the back of her skull. She was woozy and disoriented for a split second before her eyes slid back in her head and she knew no more.