There are no official documents of this event. As far as anyone in the Nine Kingdoms is aware, the time period in which Princess Vermillia remained hidden from the public eye resulted from a life-threatening bout of cold sickness, in which she remained convalescent within the confines of the royal house. The two years spanning this incident remain questionably blank, as if the scribe was without the pertinent details of the time between. The Queen Mother was only noted to address the situation in order to appease the court, verbatim, "…as for my sweet daughter, everything is being done to ensure that she recovers speedily and without undue pain. I encourage all to send her best wishes and a Happy Ever After."
There is no mention of the return trip from the Good Prince Wendell's tenth birthday celebration, during which is was said the Princess contracted the sickness, save this disconcerting observation: "…and as the riding party entered the courtyard, the Queen stepped forward to stand at the side of her daughter's mount, and touched her arm. The young Princess, cloaked and drooping, did not respond to her mother's ministration, and as the good Queen reached out to set her daughter's cloak aside, she was set upon by the Weapons-master and a man-at-arms, drawing her away. The Princess' mount was surrounded, and they withdrew into the confines of the stables, away from the eyes of the guardsmen. The little Princess remained seated, her face never lifting to look after her mother, as she was wont to do."
No one is quite sure what this curious account could allude to; we must assume that there is more to the event than has been revealed to the public. After all, nothing is ever as it seems in the Nine Kingdoms.
A Tale from the Second Kingdom
"I want adventure in the great wide somewhere; I want it more than I can tell. And for once, it might be grand to have someone understand – I want so much more than they've got planned."
The horses were growing tired; just in time, for the sun had begun to set. Behind her she could hear Master Tomas' gelding huffing as he pulled himself up the hillside, and her own mount was lathered in sweat. She could see her breath coming in little white puffs in front of her. Vee couldn't wait until they set up camp for the night, so she could settle into her luxurious fur-lined bedroll and doze in front of a roaring fire.
The princess tugged on her cloak, pulling it up around her neck to ward off the chill. Autumn in her kingdom was a beautiful time of year, but the cold was one aspect she had never enjoyed. She rose up in her stirrups, impatient to get a better look at the top of the hill they aspired to. They were so close! The copse of grandfather oak trees hid the small hunting lodge, but she knew it was there. Her toes curled in weary excitement, eagerly awaiting a respite from numbness.
Master Tomas finally caught up with her, reining in his mount to keep pace. "I see that you are as eager as I to sit back and enjoy some roast duck."
Vee flashed him a smile, half-hidden beneath her red cape. "And I see that you still can think of nothing but your stomach."
The elderly man, thin as a sapling and spry as a man a third his age, shook his head in mock disappointment. "Tsk. Young lady, we do not speak of such primitive bodily functions. It is unbefitting of a princess!"
From behind them came a snort. "Yer fighting a losin' battle, old man. Girl's more of a barbarian than the barbarians." Weapons-master Kent put his two Royal Reds in.
The teacher and pupil turned as one to stare down the grizzled older man, who sat grinning atop his mare. The weapons-master was one of the very few who dared speak that way of the royal family, but the man was as much a member of the household as Master Tomas. Both had instructed the Princess since before she could walk, and never let a chance pass by to remind her of it.
Tomas' mouth pursed. "You would know, wouldn't you," he retorted with a sniff. Vee stifled a giggle in her muffler as the two continued to bicker, and she turned back around to watch as her mount gained more ground. Her mother always said those two reminded her more of an old married couple than anything, and she was inclined to agree. They never saw eye to eye on much of anything, unless she did something wrong – which unfortunately happened more frequently than she cared to admit.
Finally they hit the plateau, and she sat back in her saddle gratefully, letting her legs and back relax from the uphill climb. She popped her spine quickly before Tomas could catch her, and craned her neck to watch as the last of the entourage caught up to them. She knew there were at least two other riders in the trees below them, rear and flanking guards that would remain by the perimeter of the campsite.
Something caught her eye then, as she gazed down at the vast, sprawling forest below. Squinting, she shaded her eyes with a gloved hand, trying to see past the shadows cast from the sinking sun. It was too far away to be one of the guards; the movement had come a little ways from the base of the hill. Her other hand instinctively tightened on her reins, and her mare nickered softly, tugging at her bit in agitation.
Tonight was No Moon, an event they had purposefully waited for. In the Second Kingdom it was customary to travel at this time of the month – it was the safest occasion in which to do so. Fortunately Prince Wendell's tenth birthday had come at a convenient time; otherwise there would have been triple the guards and much more ground covered in a day's ride.
Her mother had fallen ill only days ago; influenza, Master Tomas had diagnosed somberly. It went without saying that she would be unable to make the journey to the Fourth Kingdom for the celebration, and so for the very first time Vermillia found herself on her own. It terrified and exhilarated her in turn; a small, secret part of her wished that they would come across a Wolf, while the more sensible side of her was grateful for the night of No Moon. She had never actually seen a real live Wolf, not even a mutt. They were forbidden entrance to the palace grounds.
So it was with a rapidly pounding heart that Vee stared down the hillside, out into the darkening valley. They had neither seen nor heard any sign of Wolf activity all day, and chances were they never would. But –
There! It happened again. A flash of something dark between two overlapping trees, low to the forest floor. Her heart leapt into her throat, and beneath her the mare sensed her rider's change in demeanor; she shuddered, stamping her hooves. Vee's tongue felt glued to the roof of her mouth; she couldn't call out to Kent, or to anyone. She really shouldn't, in any case…that was what the rear guards were for, weren't they? No need for undue alarm.
Before she realized it, the sun had all but disappeared beyond the horizon, and the landscape was bathed in deep twilight. The tops of the trees in the valley below just barely caught the last rays of sunlight, sharpening the shadows beneath their canopies. If she hadn't been looking at that exact time, in that exact spot, she would have missed it.
A flash of something reflective had caught a sliver of sunlight, burning green in the dusk. Fee caught herself leaning forward in her saddle, straining for a second look. The twin lights winked at her once more, then vanished in the underbrush.
Mountain cat. Had to be. Wolves didn't come out during No Moon; everyone and their elderly uncles knew that. Besides, the guards had yet to raise any alarm, or appear to usher them into the cabin. There was no danger here.
She tugged on her hood with hands she found were shaking. Scowling to herself, she wound her trembling fingers into the soft knit fabric, willing them to stop. She was a Princess of the House of Red; she wasn't afraid of any wild animals!
Master Tomas finally caught her attention, appearing to have won the verbal sparring match he and Kent had been engaged in. His mouth smiled at her, but his brows were drawn together in silent query at her clenched jaw and wide eyes. She bit back her paranoia and smiled at him, reining her mare around in the direction of the hunting cabin. Despite her reassuring expression, he remained close to her, choosing to remain silent for the time being.
Full dark had come by the time they carried their bedrolls inside the hunter's lodge. Vee noted with satisfaction that her hands were steady and sure once more, and she trundled along behind Kent, soft, furry bedroll in tow. Behind them came one of the valets with an armful of dry kindling for the fireplace, and she arranged her bedding as the man built up a fire. She murmured a thank you as he exited, and after Kent had secured her room, she was left alone.
Tomas would be by in a few minutes, no doubt to check on her disposition. She had already dismissed the incident as an ordinary occurrence – no fox or mountain cat would dare come too close to a human's lodging.
Sure enough, he popped his bushy head into her room to make sure nothing was amiss. She scoffed at him for his over protectiveness, and he tutted at her in return. Fortunately, dinner was announced before he could find something to lecture her with, and they headed the common room to get a bite to eat. They tucked into their roast duck quietly; everyone was too tired after a full day's ride to converse much.
After several failed attempts to cover her yawns, she finally dragged herself back to her room. She washed her face and hands quickly; the water was too cold for her liking. After choking down her despised Tonic (which tasted like a combination of sage and meat that had been left out to spoil, in her humble opinion), she fumbled her way into her sleep clothes, and snuggled into the furry wrap. She knew she'd be asleep in minutes.
Nearly two hours later Vee lay staring up at the ceiling, watching the shadows dance across the support arches as the fire slowly died. Outside the wind had picked up, rattling the oaks and scraping their tattered branches across the windows. The thick velvet curtains ensured that she saw nothing of the menacing shapes their skeletal limbs made.
She should have been fast asleep. Her calves and lower back ached from the long ride, and she was generally sore all over. Exhaustion held her down, but a strange, fluttery feeling had crept its way into her stomach, keeping her eyelids wide open. Absently she ran her hands to and fro across the soft, silky fox fur, staring blankly into the dark.
It was a strange riot of feelings that kept her awake; it was akin to the shivery, excited feeling on Yuletide Eve, but the excitement was edged with something sharper, more alarming. She supposed it had to do with the ride; she had never been on a trip like this all by herself, without her mother for company. It made her feel more grown-up, older than her fifteen years. Like she was a responsible adult that could be trusted to watch out for herself.
Her train of thought meandered after that, and slowly she relaxed. It wasn't until something jarred her awake that she realized her eyes had been closed.
Her head snapped to the side, facing the window. A branch must have broken against the house, she thought, comforting herself. Vee forced her eyes shut again, deliberately unclenching her fists where they had been clutching at her bedroll.
Alright, that was definitely not a broken branch. Fee bolted upright, eyes wide in the darkness. The fire had died, leaving only embers to glow very faintly in the hearth. She could just barely make out the dim, velvety folds of her curtains, and she stared hard at them until her eyes watered.
She waited for what felt like forever, but nothing else happened. Her drapes remained mercifully still, and the shadows never moved. Vee made herself blink.
And then the scratching started.
Her heart slammed in her chest, and with a rigidity born of sudden and absolute fear, she slid her hand beneath her pillow. Her trembling fingers found the hilt of the sharp little dagger Kent insisted she keep with her, and she squeezed it hard. The soft scratching, a far cry from the irregular tap-taps of the branches, never ceased. It was a muted, rhythmic sound, as if someone were sharpening a blade on a whetstone.
A cold sweat broke out at her temples at the thought. Brigands. Kidnappers. Each scenario was worse than the last, leaving her frozen to the spot. Someone's trying to break into my room and get me.
Her mind absolutely refused the idea of Wolves. It was No Moon Night. They didn't dare come out to challenge anyone. They were at their weakest without the power of the lunar light, a belief she clung desperately to.
Despite her self-affirmation, fear kept a tight hold on her throat. She tried to swallow, to wet her mouth for a scream, but she couldn't make a sound.
Then the noise stopped. Vee held her breath, knuckles white on her blade. Her eyes felt glued open; she didn't dare blink or look away from the silhouette of the curtains.
The glass rattled abruptly, and the noise shocked her into moving. She propelled herself backwards off her bedroll, scooting herself towards the fireplace. If she could see what was coming, she stood a chance. Her sweaty hands clenched around the little pig-sticker, and she held it out in front of her, barely keeping herself upright.
She should try to scream again. Tomas was just down the hallway, and for God's sake Kent's room was right beside hers. She managed to suck in a shuddering breath, but it got stuck in her lungs. Vee could feel the fireplace screen at her back, pressing sharply into her spine; the pressure and the heat from the coals were strangely reassuring. She felt her throat unblock a little; she opened her mouth –
Everything happened at once. The windowpane crashed open, and the encroaching wind blew the curtains away, billowing out like sinister clouds. Out from the darkness a shape coalesced, sweeping across the floorboards with a muted hush-shush, hush-shush noise. The dying fire reflected off of two points of light that seemed to hang suspended in the middle of the room.
Vee met the Wolf's eyes, and something inside her went very, very still. Massive jaws opened, and the needle sharp teeth gleamed at her, shiny with saliva.
She wanted to close her eyes. She wanted to lie back down and pretend she was still asleep, and that this was just another children's nightmare, borne from her family's multitude of horror stories. Without meaning to her eyes fell shut, as if she really could force herself to into believing she would wake back up.
Hazel eyes flew back open to see the wolf's gaping maw an inch from her face. A pink wet tongue swept across its gums, and it snorted. Hot, humid air buffeted her face, and if she hadn't been frozen to the spot before, this made her grow roots and sprout leaves. She couldn't have moved if…well, if her life had depended on it.
Which it did.
The small knife lay in her clenched fist, all but forgotten. All she felt was numb, and strangely cold, as if frostbite had settled in. Then the black lips pulled back to reveal shining teeth once more, baring them in a wolf's grin. A low peal of thunder rumbled from somewhere deep in its chest.
It was laughing at her.
It was this more than anything that woke her from her stupor. She dragged in a quick, heaving breath, even as that massive head reared back, jaws wide open –
And she dove not onto him, but to the side, rolling back up to her knees. The beast crashed muzzle-first into the grate, and it staggered, snarling wrathfully. It recovered far too quickly, however, leaping after her. She barely had time to brace herself, like Kent had shown her, and then the wolf was on top of her.
Her knife swung up like a streak of lightning, scraping off of the wolf's ribcage. The animal fell back, rage in its inhuman eyes, and she swore virulently to herself. She had just missed her mark, and now it knew she was armed.
By now it didn't even occur to her to scream for help; it was fight or flight, and the wolf had its back to the door, herding her towards the open window. Its glowing eyes were on her weapon, keeping its wounded side away from her. Saliva seeped from its maw, and a low growl filled the space between them. She feinted to her right as if making a break for the door, and the wolf followed her diligently, lunging into her path with its teeth bared. At the last possible second she fell back to her left, knife flashing in the dim light. Another hit, though shallow, struck the animal's forearm.
The beast reared, favoring the limb, but as she settled back into a crouch it sprung, catching her off guard. It hit her with the force of a fully-grown man, and both girl and wolf toppled into the wall. Her head bounced off the sill, disorienting her, and the animal pressed itself against her, keeping her pinned to the wall just beneath the window. Before she realized it was happening its black jaws had fastened themselves around her throat. It shook her once, twice.
The pain of its grip filled her existence. She'd never felt anything like it. Vee didn't dare move for fear of its teeth slipping further into her flesh, nor did she try using her knife again. Through the haze she felt a massive, calloused paw pressing down on her clenched fist, scraping at it. Obediently she dropped her weapon.
The animal swept it away from her, and resettled its grip on her throat, causing her to twist sideways painfully to avoid it tearing out her jugular. She felt its hot tongue against the hollow of her throat, and she thought she might be sick. It shook her once more, harder than before, smashing her head into the wall. Gasping, Vee slid down until she was parallel to the floor, pressing her back into the smooth wood. Her throat throbbed, and she felt tears stinging her eyes. She squeezed them shut for a long moment, willing herself not to cry.
As she opened them again, eyes mercifully dry, it pulled itself off of her and backed away, head lowered and glittering eyes fixed on her face. It grinned again, and she choked on a furious sob. Meeting its eyes, she bared her own blunt teeth at it.
A snarl ripped from its chest, and it lunged for her. Bravado fled her, and a scream died in her throat even as she tried to jerk away. At the last second it changed course, jaws snapping just beside her left ear. Panting, she pushed herself as far back as she could get. Its hot breath stirred the loose hair at her temple, and she couldn't help but cringe, turning her face away.
Her body froze of its own accord, the terror pushing down on her chest, choking her.
It spoke again, its voice unlike anything she had ever heard. "Run."
The wolf backed away slowly, and she watched its eyes, those bright, lucid eyes that knew too much, understood too much. It grinned once more, and this time she saw it for what it was. It knew her terror, her helplessness, her rage, and reveled in it. The jaws stretched.
She obeyed, clawing her way up the wall and throwing herself out of the window. Every breath was agony. She couldn't even hear her heartbeat; just a loud, rushing noise that filled her head. As she turned to climb back to her feet, she caught a glimpse through the curtains of her window. The wolf had something long and dark in its jaws, and it was padding up to the windowsill, looking as if had all the time in the world. Maybe it did.
She didn't spare it another thought. She turned, and ran.
There was no moon to light the way, and the tangled, gnarled limbs of the bare oak trees confused her, turning the woods into a wicked, dark maze with too many corners and no paths to follow. She knew instinctively that the lodge was no longer safe; the only way to go was forward. So she dove into the forest, feeling the tears streaming down her cheeks. The night around her was deathly quiet, turning every step she made into an avalanche of sound. She felt more than saw eyes surrounding her, and knew that the wolf hadn't been alone.
Brambles tore at her bare feet, but she bit back her cries, choosing to panic in silence. She didn't feel like a responsible adult now; she felt every inch the child she really was. You should have screamed; you should have run out the bloody door the minute you woke up. Oh God oh God oh God –
Her mind wove itself into knots, turning back in on itself like a writhing serpent. She stumbled more than once, unable to see more than a few feet in front of her, but she was shaking with adrenaline and let it pull her back up to her feet. She ran for forever, until suddenly the ground disappeared beneath her feet and she was falling, falling.
She pitched headfirst down the hillside, barely managing to land on her side like Kent had shown her. She rolled until she hit a tree, and she lay there for a few minutes, stunned and unable to breathe from the impact.
Finally Vee was able to pull herself back up, and she barreled down the side of the hill, catching herself on the tree limbs that swept out before her to slow her descent. For a long time the only sounds she heard were the ragged sobbing of her breath and the crunch of dead leaves beneath her bleeding feet.
Then came a sound, and her heart stuttered. She didn't dare pause to listen for it again, but a thin trickle of hope spread through her. They woke up, they know I'm gone, please oh please come save me!
And then the noise came again; the eerie, haunting strains of a wolf call. Around her came answering howls, and hope dashed itself to the ground somewhere behind her. Panic threatened to split her chest in two, and she couldn't hold back a cry. She kept fumbling her way downhill, trying to see past her tears, feeling her way in the dark to level ground. Her feet were on fire, and she felt a stitch growing in her side. Still she pushed herself forward, forcing her legs to keep moving.
Suddenly something sharp stung her calf; not a bramble. Then came an excited yip, and she knew that one had caught up with her. Her exhausted, petrified mind fancied she could feel its hot breath – and maybe that was exactly what it was, for it nipped at her leg again.
A scream ripped itself from her throat, and she threw herself forward desperately. More yelps followed her, surrounding her on all sides – they were in front of her now. She couldn't find the words to pray; she just sobbed wordlessly, racing onward into the dark.
Another kind of noise broke through the night; a sharp, cruel laugh. "Run, Princess! You do it so well!"
Her heart might have stopped. It was the same voice from her room; the same beast that had driven her to her flight. Nearly blind with rage and fear, she did as it bade, running, running down that hill for what might have been forever.
Then the world tilted so suddenly it stole the air from her; there was ground beneath her feet that shouldn't have been there, and as she pitched forward her only thought was – where did the hill go?
Her breath exploded from her in a rush, and she lay where she had fallen, stunned once more. Her body convulsed, fighting for air, but nothing came. A dry, noiseless sob wracked her, and then again, and again. She lay there heaving, wondering deliriously if she were drowning.
Then something grabbed her, and flipped her over on her back. Still struggling to breathe, she looked up wide-eyed at the skeletal branches that pierced the star-filled sky. The sight was blocked a moment later by something solid, something human shaped. Dazed and only half-aware, she wondered if Kent had found her. Eventually she found a scrap of air, and wheezed out his name.
The Wolf above her laughed, the sound echoing strangely in her ears. "No such luck, Princess. Your bodyguard couldn't make it tonight.
It's just you and me."
And Vee did something she had sworn she would never do; she fainted dead away.
If I have to tell you where that quote was from…then I'll be very sad. So. Just a clarification, in case you didn't catch it: this takes place about eleven years before the events of the Tenth Kingdom. The young girl we meet in this chapter is the adolescent version of Red Riding Hood the Third, whom we saw at Prince Wendell's coronation. Other than that…I'm not telling. You'll just have to wait and see! Constructive critique is definitely encouraged, so please feel free to leave a comment afterwards. Thanks!
Also – I fudged up the geography a bit. Originally I was certain there was a mountain range that lay to the north of the Second Kingdom that separates it from the Ice Kingdom, but I recently discovered it was not so. I would ask that you suspend your disbelief, just this once, for creative licensing purposes.