⇓ Index ⇓
A young girl’s bare feet touch the cold, smooth wooden planks of her bedroom floor. She clutches a doll tight to her chest with one arm, the other outstretched in front of her, feeling for the wall she knows is ten steps from her bedside. Her hand brushes against the finely carved spruce of the wall and she stops. They hold their breath, lean against the wall, and listen…
Shuffling. The sound of leather soles against tile floors. Then a dragging sound. Those same floors tugging at linen, the same kind that the girl’s nightgown is made of. Their heartbeats shake their entire body. That’s what had woken her up, those shuffling and dragging sounds. The footsteps… they’re confident, yet not heavy, and always begin with a sharp click followed by a light thump—the sound of their brother’s footsteps. But what’s making the dragging sound?
She waits. The noises crawl their way past her door and down the hallway, and eventually fade away entirely. The girl takes a deep breath and feels for the door. She’s just tall enough to reach the handle. It’s cold, just like everything else in the castle, and made of a rough metal, though she doesn’t remember what kind. She slowly pulls it down.
The click the door makes feels like a cannonball crashing through the wall. The girl flinches, then carefully cracks the door open. Sticking the side of their head into the hallway, they listen. The hall is deathly quiet. Her ears start to lightly ring in the silence, desperate to hear something.
After what feels like forever, she starts to shrink back into her room. Maybe it was nothing. Just their imagination. Or maybe Alaric was just passing by during his and Simon’s vigil. Then something catches her nose.
Furrowing her brows, she sniffs the air. There’s something… metallic. She ducks her head into her room and takes another breath. No, it’s definitely not coming from there. Her room only smells like age and the stiff pages of braille books. It must be from the hallway.
She debates with herself a moment before widening the doorway enough to where she can slip out. She shivers. The tile floor is much cooler than the wood, but she’d rather be able to tell exactly where she is than be warm. Knowing the hallway is about 20 steps wide, she takes two forward… then five. She still can’t sense anything different. She begins to take another five, then—
They jump. The bottom of their foot had landed in something sticky, thick, and wet. Her chest feels like it’s on fire as she drops to her knees to examine the substance. It reeks of that metallic smell, so much so that she can taste it, and she recoils from the stench.
“Wh… what is this?” She whispers to herself as she covers her face with a hand. It’s familiar, but not so familiar that she knows it like the aroma of freshly baked pastries, or flowers in the spring. Her brain claws for an answer. When was the last time she had smelled this?
She’s so preoccupied that the returning footsteps don’t register. At least, not until they’re right beside her. She uncovers her mouth and stumbles backward away from the mystery liquid.
“Lorraine,” her brother’s, Alaric’s, voice says.
And then it hits her. The last time she had been around that stench was a couple years ago, when a horse had collapsed onto one of her sisters, pinning her between the animal’s powerful body and a collection of sharp rocks. Her sister struggled so much out of pure shock that it tore much of the skin on her leg. Their parents had rushed her to the castle physician, passing right by Lorraine’s room, and though she never saw her sister’s injury, she remembered well the smell.
Alaric’s voice is low and unreadable, even for Lorraine. "Why art thou up at this hour?” He takes another step towards them.
She scrambles to her feet—it’s on him too, the metallic blood-smell, she realizes, is covering him. They clutch their doll tighter to their chest, their breathing becoming fast and short.
Alaric stops walking. The hall falls away from Lorraine, with no sensation to focus on. Then her brother’s spear clanks against the ground. “Ah, of course. Thou canst smell it.” He sighs, lifting the spear from the floor with a scrape. “That is unfortunate. I was hoping to do this whilst thee slept, but—”
“Mum! Pa!” Lorraine cries. She starts backing down the hallway. The only noise that returns is the echo of her voice.
Alaric waits for a moment before continuing. “—but I guess we shall have to do this the hard way.”
Lorraine turns and bolts down the hall, seemingly surprising her brother as it takes a second for his footsteps to join hers in a frantic dash through the castle. She counts the steps, 20…30…40…50…here! She takes a sharp left into the kitchens, throwing the door shut and flicking down the latch. The door thumps in its frame a couple of times as Alaric tries to push it open. The latch won’t hold long, but it should be enough time to—
“This need not be so difficult!” He calls. “Open the door, I promise it shan’t hurt.”
Lorraine is already under one of the preparation tables, feeling the wall for the grate she knows is there. Many times they had gotten in trouble with their parents, the king and queen, due to climbing around in the old vent. However, that hadn’t stopped her from figuring out how to loosen the bolts enough to pry the grate off the wall when she needed, but still put it back on when she was done with her adventures.
Wood splinters off the door with a loud crack. Lorraine’s hands shake violently as she finally locates the grate, quickly unscrewing the loose bolts. One seems to be tighter than usual though.
He's getting through.
She leaps to her feet and runs her hand over the table, searching for—there it is! She drops back to her knees and grabs the bolt head with the towel, turning it with all her might. The grate clatters to the floor and she scuttles inside, resting the grate on the entrance behind her. The door gives, snapping off its hinges as Alaric bursts into the room. Lorraine scoots as far back as they can while still seeing the kitchen, knees and doll held tight against their chest.
Alaric searches the room, panting, turning over boxes of vegetables and lifting up tables. Then he lets out a frustrated growl. “Gods damn it all, where art thou?”
Lorraine holds her breath. He’s suddenly gone quiet. His hearing isn’t nearly as honed as hers, but she feels like the slightest twitch of a muscle will alert him to her position. He’s silent for a little longer, before finally rushing to the other, not destroyed, door and flinging it open. It creaks, hanging open behind him.
The girl lets out a wobbly breath, setting her palm onto the bottom of the vent. They know the way out of the castle, but what then? Alaric would probably have guards searching for her, so she couldn’t stay in the city. She probably couldn’t even stay in the kingdom. There was a land north of Alohnsohn they had heard of… Ivory Cliffs, wasn’t it? Maybe they’ll go there. Or maybe they’ll catch a boat across the sea to Emaria… but it’s really cold there. She remembers what her mother had called it, “a land of pine and frost.” She doesn’t like the cold... This vent is really, really cold.
Lorraine stuffs her doll into the collar of her nightgown, then assumes her usual crawling position. First things first, get out of the castle.
Alaric’s spear clatters to the ground as he limps to the castle’s massive front doors, using all of his might to shove them open. The two guards outside start at the groan the doors make, instinctively readying their spears.
“My prince, tis the middle of the vigil, what art thou—” their words are cut off by the sight of Alaric, bloodied head to toe with a deep gash in his right thigh. “By the gods! What happened?” The guard rushes to wrap an arm under the prince’s shoulder, supporting his weight.
“A-an assassin,” Alaric coughs. “Fetch Commander Geon, tell him to close all exits to the city!”
The guard nods to their partner, who begins sprinting for the guard barracks. “Where art the King and Queen?”
The prince spits out blood. “Dead,” he says bluntly. “I was too late. The intruder nearly took my life as well.”
“My gods… and the other princes? The princesses?”
“It appears some of them put up a fight, but all except Princess Lorraine I found deceased. I know not where she is.” He pauses to take a deep breath, the taste of blood ripe on his tongue. “I suppose Geon was right. Leaving the halls unguarded was foolish, even for the vigil.”
“I swear to thee, my prince, we shall find who did this. But first, let us bring thee to an infirmary.”
Alaric nods, and the two begin descending the granite steps. He winces with each stair—inflicting the wound on himself hadn’t been easy, but it was certainly better than finding his neck on the executioner’s block for treason. Emerging from the castle without a serious wound surely would have raised suspicion, especially with Geon. The guard commander has the eyes of a hawk and ears of a cat. Despite that, Alaric doubts he’ll be able to locate the dagger the prince had tossed into the sea.
The two reach the base of the steps. Alaric sees the commander in the distance, already yelling out orders to the rest of the guard. The only loose end is Lorraine, and if she isn’t to die in the city streets then she will surely die in the wilderness, and if not that she will be brought back to the castle and be dealt with for good. Of course, it will just look like an unfortunate accident to the guards.
Let this be enough to end our curse, Alaric thinks as he crosses the courtyard with his escort. He looks up—the night is still and clear, the moon shines bright amongst the stars, and he is drenched in the blood of the royal family. May whichever god condemned us look oblivion in the eye and be forgotten by the world. Forgotten by time itself.
⇓ More ⇓
violence, implied violence against children