Rosamund's heart pounded as fast as the hooves of the horse beneath her. This wasn't her sweet little palfrey, her Snowdropthe little mare had been sent away by her stepmother without a reason, leaving only powerful, dangerous-looking black beasts in the stables.
This was one of those black horses, strong and fast, and terrifying to ride. From the moment she snatched the reins from the groom, threw herself into his saddle and smacked his rump with a riding crop, she had known she was taking her life in her hands. This was like being astride a tempest, or riding a boat over a waterfall. Her arms were a mass of scratches, and every second was an eternity of terror as she clung with all her might to his back.
But not half as terrifying as the Royal Huntsman, who was probably on another one of these monsters, chasing her down. With dogs. A pack of vicious, huge black boarhounds that had come with the Huntsman when he'd arrived weeks ago. She knew about the dogs, for sure; she could hear them baying behind her as the horse raced through the woods.
She had to crouch low over the horse's neck, because the horrible thing wasn't paying any attention to low branches; she had been whipped twice across the face before she took this position, and it was a wonder she hadn't been blinded.
Not that still having her eyesight made any difference right now.
The horse was careering through the woods, and she couldn't tell if it was on a path or not. It didn't seem to care. And even if she had known where to go, she doubted it would have responded to the reins. This was almost suicide; the beast could stumble and fall at any moment, taking her with it, killing them both, or at least breaking bones.
But behind her was certain death.
It was that terror, the glitter of the knife in the dark passageway, the bruised arm where the Huntsman had seized her, the look of cold, bored evil in the Huntsman's eyes, that had driven her to wrench herself free, to run headlong to the stables, to seize the reins of the horse waiting for her stepmother's afternoon ride
That terror was still coiled inside her, making her urge the horse onward.
She didn't know where the horse was going, but she had no clear idea where she should go in the first place, so that hardly mattered. She'd figure that out when she was safe from the Huntsman. She'd gotten awayso The Tradition might be moving in her favor now. She'd find rescue. Maybe a Prince or a brave woodsman or a bold peasant boy. Maybe a princely thief with a good heart. Maybe a Wise Beast. Something would come to help her, surely, surely.
It must. This was Eltaria. She would not think about all the stories where the Evil Stepmother won, where the princess was eaten or ravished and left for dead or
The horse galloped onward, deeper and deeper into the woods, into the sort of forest she had never seen before.
Something shrieked off to the side, and the horse bucked and shied violently, as if it thought she was something that had leapt on its back and was about to tear its throat out.
She couldn't hold on. Red-hot pain lanced through her fingertips as her nails broke and tore off when the rim of the saddle was ripped out of her hands, and then she was flying through the air. There was a moment of clarity, and a strange calmthen she landed in a patch of brush that broke her fall. The horse went careering off without her. And now she heard the hounds again.
But they were following the scent of the horse, not her. And the horse had tossed her a good many feet away.
She burrowed her way into the bushes rather than running senselessly after the horse, which she had no hope of catching anyway. She managed to claw her way out of sight through the mass of twigs and leaves and into the musty gloom beneath the branches, then wiggled under the bushes like a rabbit in a warren, belly-down on the dirt and leaves until she was, she hoped, well away from where she had broken her way in, and still farther from where she'd parted company with the horse. And then, with her nose inches from the ground, she waited.
The hounds bellowed past in full cry, and she shivered, hearing the sound of hoofbeats on their heels. But they didn't stop, and the Huntsman must not have seen the signs of her being thrown. They raced off, farther into the woods, on the trail of the horse. She waited, sweat cooling and itching, insects crawling over her, until the sound of baying was nothing more than a muffled moan in the distance.
Then she struggled her way to the edge of the brush patch, staggered to her feet and listened, hard, to get a direction.
She had no idea where she was, of course. So any direction was a good one, as long as it took her away from the Huntsman.
She picked her way through the dense undergrowth as best she could, trying to get as much distance as possible between herself and her pursuers. She was tired, frightened, hurting from a thousand cuts and bruises. She had no idea where she was, no food or water, no shelter. And now, yes, she did hear the rumble of thunder above the trees. It certainly was going to rain.
Could things possibly get any worse?
Don't think that! she told herself sharply, thinking of bearswolvesnot-so-princely thieves. This wasn't a bad thing. The rain would wash away her scent. The hounds and the Huntsman would not be able to find her. She just needed to find someplace to get out of the rain.
And pray that The Tradition didn't want to make a Fair Corpse out of her
She couldn't help it. She started to cry. It shouldn't be this hard; didn't everyone in the family study what The Tradition was going to do? Shouldn't they have been able to stop this? She stumbled against an old oak tree, put out her hand to steady herself and found it was hollow. Like a frightened rabbit, she crawled inside.
It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair. Why did her mother die? She had been so good; she'd never done anything to deserve to die!
But of course, the part of her mind that was always calculating, always thinking, the part she could never make just stop, said and if it hadn't been that, it would have been something else. You just turned sixteen. You know what that means in The Tradition.
Oh, she knew. Sixteen was bad enough for ordinary girls. For the noble, the wealthy, The Tradition ruthlessly decreed what sort of birthday you would haveif you were pretty, it was the celebration of a lifetime. If you were plain, everyone, literally everyone, would forget it was even your birthday, and you would spend the day miserable and alone. Traditional Paths went from there, decreeing, unless you fought it, just what the rest of your life would be like based on that birthday. For a Princess, it was worse. For the only child who was also a Princess, worse still. Curses or blessings, which might be curses in disguise, descended. Parents died or fell deathly ill. You were taken by a dragon. Evil Knights demanded your hand. Evil Sorcerers kidnapped you to marry youor worse.
It wasn't fair. And it didn't help that she knew exactly what to blame.
She cried and shivered and hiccupped and cried more, sneezed and shivered and cried. She wanted her father, but her father was back at the border with his army, having delivered his new Queen ceremoniously to the palace. She wanted her mother, but her mother was in the Royal Cenotaph, and Queen Sable was
Was an Evil Stepmother, was what she was. She had nothing in her wardrobe but black! Oh, she said it was out of respect for the late Queen Celeste, but this was Eltaria, and someone who wore nothing but black was either a poet or an Evil Sorceress, and Rosa hadn't heard Sable declaiming any sonnets or seen her scribbling in velvet-covered journals.
And besides, not three hours after the King had left again, Rosa had gone spying on the new Queen, and had seen her actually talking to some disembodied green head in a mirror! So that pretty much clinched the Sorceress part! And who else but an Evil Sorceress would have been talking to a disembodied green head?
That had been enough for her, she'd avoided her stepmother completely after that, and lived in dread of what was coming. She avoided needles, the spindles of spinning wheels, anything sharp and pointed. She kept away from balconies and only ate what she'd seen everyone else eat. She'd locked her door at night, set traps to trip up anyone coming through the window or down the chimney and had so many charms against demons and the like hung up in the canopy of her bed that they rattled softly against one another in the darkness. She'd done everything she could think of
But she truly had not thought that a servant, no matter how sinister, would dare to raise his hand against her.
She was so cold
so cold she ached with it and jumped every time lightning struck near, which was horribly often. And every time she thought she couldn't cry anymore, a fresh shock sent her off again.
Why had her father done this? She didn't know; at times it was as if he was two different people. There was the wonderful Father who sometimes turned up without warning to teach her how to make her nightmares stop, who gave her rare, enchanted toys, like the tiny kitten that never became a cat and would go curl up on a shelf when you told it "time for bed." Then there was the King, who was always away at war, and who treated her with the grave formality of a complete stranger.
Of course he did, said that voice in her head. If you were the beloved Princess, The Tradition would make your life, your fate, even more horrible.
Where was Godmother Lily then? She'd come to the funeral, but why hadn't she healed Rosa's mother? Why hadn't she kept her father from marrying that witch?
She could remember her old nurse saying something, though. It doesn't always take a spell to turn a man's head and wits.
Just as Rosa thought that, she felt movement at her back.
And what had been, she thought, the solid wood behind her abruptly vanished.
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