AN~ Well, it's done! Hiatus is over, I finished my finals, got a 4.0 for the semester, and have graduation on Saturday!
QotU: Hardest class you've ever taken?
Old QotU Winner: Nello Orella went to Mongolia. That's pretty awesome. Though everyone's vacations sounded amazing, that's the one that stuck with me.
Footsteps came down the cavern, and Daphne glanced up, squinting into the darkness, hoping to see something- anything. She couldn't, so she switched to hoping that it was Ms. White coming towards her, and not someone else. She thought the footsteps sounded a bit heavy to be Red, but she wasn't sure. She bit her lip and huddled into a small lump, trying not to shiver. Maybe, if it wasn't Ms. White, whoever it was wouldn't notice her.
No such luck. The footsteps got closer and closer and didn't stop and then suddenly a foot ran into Daphne, hard, sending whoever owned it over her legs and onto the floor on her other side with a loud thud.
Daphne winced, swallowing a whimper. Maybe they'd think she was a rock. A soft, cloth-covered rock...
"Daphne?" Ms. White's voice came from the direction of the sounds of the person who'd tripped over her picking themself up. It was Ms. White.
Daphne, whose tears had dried up a long time ago, almost started sobbing again, this time out of relief. She threw herself at the shadow that was Ms. White, almost missing and sending herself to the floor, too. As it was, she tackled her favorite teacher and they both landed against the cavern wall forcefully, Daphne clinging to Ms. White's side, instead of her front like she'd been aiming for, and Ms. White wrapping her arms back around Daphne, a little less forcefully.
"You were gone so long," Daphne whispered. "I thought- I thought- I thought you'd-"
"I'm fine," Ms. White promised. "I just got a little held up." She picked herself up off the floor, pulling Daphne with her, and said, "Now listen, it ought to be much smoother sailing from here on out, but it's a long walk. A very long walk. We'll be in here for a few days, probably, before we get out and to safety. Can you handle that?"
Daphne nodded, then, realizing that Ms. White couldn't see that, said, "Uh-huh." She'd noticed vaguely that Ms. White had a bag with her, and she decided now that it had food and camping equipment in it.
"Good," Ms. White said, "I'm glad you're not claustrophobic."
"That means afraid of tight spaces, right?" Daphne asked, already knowing the answer but needing to say it out loud. "Yeah, me too."
"Come on," Ms. White said, disentangling herself the rest of the way from Daphne's arms. "We'd better get started. We're behind as it is, and I only have enough food for a week."
Daphne steadied herself and followed Ms. White into the darkness, hoping that somewhere along the line there would be a light. She could live without sunshine for a week if it meant getting out of that cave, but she didn't think she could live without any light at all for that long. She'd get out of the cave with more bruises than an apple from the bottom of the barrel.
Ms. White did have a lantern, it turned out, but she'd only brought enough oil to last a little while, and she didn't think it would stay lit while they were moving, so she only turned it on after she and Daphne had stopped for the night... or just to sleep and eat, because it might not have been nighttime at all, for all they knew.
The two both had hard rolls and strips of cheese and dried meat. Daphne had piled hers together the way she always did, but Ms. White was eating them separately. There was a small underground stream running next to their campsite, so they were drinking from that instead of using Ms. White's limited supply of water. Two thin but warm and relatively soft bedrolls had been laid out on the far side of the lantern from the water, and they would make sleeping on the uneven ground bearable for the two. Daphne remembered those things making enough difference for her to sleep but not actually making the ground comfortable, but she decided that, after the dungeon, she didn't particularly care.
They ate in silence for a while, then Daphne built up the courage to ask, "How did you know how to get me out? How come Granny sent you? Why did she call you 'your majesty'? Where are we going and why do you know how to get there?" The questions tumbled out of her in a rush, and she was almost embarrassed afterwards, but she was too curious to care.
Ms. White blinked at Daphne several times, then said, "Well, I can give you a basic answer to most of those questions all at once: I'm the true heir to the throne of Magica."
Daphne's eyes opened wide and she stopped chewing her food. "The princess?" she asked, dumbfounded. "But she's dead! The queen killed her! ...Or something..."
Ms. White shook her head. "My mother tried to kill me, but I escaped. These tunnels are built by dwarves. Most of the capital city was built by dwarves, actually. I was friends with them, and they showed me around the castle. When my mother went insane, they helped me escape and sent me to Artisa. I was supposed to marry a prince from there."
Daphne let that sink in for a minute, turning it over in her mind, then, once she thought she had a handle on it, asked, "So... how come you didn't marry him?"
"My mother stopped me," Ms. White said softly.
"But... I thought she tried to kill you," Daphne said, brow furrowing. "That doesn't make sense."
"She was crazy, Daphne," Ms. White said. "She tried to kill me to save me from him."
Daphne was still confused, and it must have showed on her face, because even though she didn't say anything, Ms. White explained, "It turns out that the man I was supposed to marry, Atticus, was a sadist- someone who loves to inflict pain- and my mother found out. She decided to keep me from that in any way she could, which included poisoning me."
"Oh," Daphne said. "So where is he now?"
"She killed him," Ms. White said shortly.
Daphne bit her lip. "And then what happened?"
"I left," Ms. White said. "His brother wanted me to stay, but... well, I'd felt pretty helpless this whole time. I thought because I was a princess I would be safe my whole life. But I wasn't, and I never wanted to feel like that again. So I went to learn how to take care of myself. And then I went to Sneak, because I thought there I could be useful, and maybe there I could hide."
"Was it hard?" Daphne asked.
Ms. White nodded. "Very hard. When I came back and found out my whole family was dead- my brothers and sisters and my mother all gone, I didn't think I would ever be happy again. And so much had changed. Billy had gotten married three different times and was still married to the last woman, my kingdom wasn't a kingdom anymore, but ruled by a committee... I couldn't go home, and I couldn't go back to Artisa."
"Was Billy- is Billy the man you were supposed to marry's brother?" Daphne asked.
Ms. White nodded again. "The king of Artisa, now. I suppose he's happy, even if he did break it off with the last wife."
"Granny knows who you are?" Daphne asked, taking another bit of her unnamed bread-meat-and cheese combination. The information had sunk in enough that she could eat again.
"She knew when she hired me to teach you and your sister," Ms. White said. "She may have known from the time I came to Sneak. Your grandmother may not be the optimal person to do fieldwork, but she's the best spymaster anybody could ask for. She'd make a wonderful queen if your sister couldn't manage it."
"I think Granny might know everybody's secret," Daphne said thoughtfully, after she swallowed her latest bite of food.
"Most likely," Ms. White agreed.
A realization coming to her, Daphne asked, "Does she know the Wolf's secret?"
"The captain of the guard? Most certainly," Ms. White said.
"Do you know it?" Daphne asked.
Ms. White shook her head. "No idea at all."
Daphne sighed. She'd finished her dinner, and she hadn't found out all the answers. She'd gotten more than she'd hoped for, though. She knew Ms. White's story, now. Most of it. Not quite enough, she realized, another cluster of questions coming to her.
"So we're going to Artisa?" she asked. "How come?"
"Billy owes me a favor," Ms. White said grimly. "Even if he never wants to see me again, he'll keep us safe in his kingdom until I can get you home. Artisa is a big enough force that Magica won't want to attack them just to get you, even if they know you're there. And nobody there will hurt us."
"Okay," Daphne said. "Should I call him Billy?"
Ms. White laughed and shook her head. "Call him William, or his highness, or Charming. He doesn't like Billy."
Daphne nodded, not pointing out that Ms. White was calling him Billy all over the place. "Ms. White?"
"Yes?" Ms. White asked. She'd finished her dinner, too, and was now moving around their campsite, securing things for the night.
"Red looks like she's my age. But she was there before the things with your family happened. How is that possible?"
Ms. White was silent for a while as she finished tying up the food and climbed into her bedroll. Daphne thought she wasn't going to answer, but then Ms. White said, "Red is... different. She... well, because of her mental issues, people have been using her for a very long time. Someone once used her to test out a spell to stop aging. It worked. It made her worse. Especially when her whole family died. She's not... stable."
"Oh," Daphne said softly. "I thought that maybe the rumors were true."
"What rumors?" Ms. White asked, her voice a bit sharp.
"The ones about Magicians," Daphne said, climbing into her own bedroll. "That they live longer than normal people do."
"That... that actually is true," Ms. White said. "People who practice magic regularly have longer lives than people who don't. I'm not that old, though. I haven't done more than ten spells since I left Magica, and that was over twenty years ago. I'm aging just like you are."
"Oh," Daphne said again. "So what makes her different?"
"Red can't age," Ms. White said. "Not until someone finds a cure. And everyone who cares enough about her to look for one is dead. I feel bad for her, so I used to spend time with her. She must have remembered that. Otherwise I don't think she'd have let us pass."
"Do you think she'll tell people we came through?" Daphne asked.
"Maybe," Ms. White said. "But even if she did, they might not believe her. Or they'd think we died. Not many people can get past a Jabberwock."
"Well that's good," Daphne said. She paused, then asked, "Could Sabrina do it?"
Ms. White said wearily, "Go to sleep Daphne."
Daphne tried for a while, but she couldn't get the idea out of her head. "Could she?" she asked again, some minutes later.
"There's no way to know unless she runs into one herself," Ms. White said. "There's no simulation for fighting a monster like that. Now go to sleep. We've got a long day tomorrow."
The journey was long and hard, and Daphne was very tired after it. Mostly, though, she was bored. There were only so many conversations she could start, and Ms. White wouldn't start any of her own. After that first night, she wouldn't even answer Daphne's questions well enough to satisfy her. Daphne spent the week asking questions, getting grunts or three-word sentences in reply, stumbling over rocks, and trying not to fall into the stream they'd slept beside their first night, which paralleled their winding tunnel. She got very tired of dried meat, bread, and cheese sandwiches.
So when they emerged from the tunnel into sunlight at the end of the week, Daphne was ecstatic. At least, she was until she realized that they were in a very deep gorge with cliff walls rising almost straight up on all sides.
She groaned. "How are we going to get out of here?" she wailed.
"There's a path up in one of the other canyons," Ms. White said, and she walked off on the sand that edged the stream in this gorge.
Following, Daphne decided she was happy enough to be in the sunshine again that it didn't matter that they'd have to climb out of some enormous pit.
Six pits later, she wasn't so happy. Two of the pits hadn't had any sides at all, and she and Ms. White had had to swim through them, so she was soaked, and it was getting dark. "What is this place?" she asked, shaking water off the sleeves of her very bedraggled dress.
"The Tracks," Ms. White said.
"In Trickster?" Daphne asked, eyes widening. "Wow. Sabrina wrote to me about them." She was silent as she wrung out her skirt and followed Ms. White for a time, then she asked, "How many more do we have to get through to get out?"
"Seven," Ms. White said. "We should be out by tomorrow. But we're camping here tonight- the next few don't have any beaches, and this one has an overhang, in case people are looking for us." She nodded to the side of the heavily shadowed canyon, where, sure enough, there was an overhang in the sandstone.
Daphne followed Ms. White under the orange-brown striped side of the wall, and the two began to set up camp. The first thing Daphne did once the fire was started was take off her still dripping dress and wrap herself in one of the blankets that had, thankfully, been secured in Ms. White's bag. The bag was made of oilcloth, so their things had stayed dry, for the most part, and Daphne could work to repair her clothes a little while they rested.
Her repairs weren't very good. By the time she'd let the skirt dry out, it was fully dark, but the moon, which was nearly full, was visible overhead, so she decided to work on her skirt then, because she couldn't fall asleep in that brightness anyway, and she might as well do something useful. Still, she wasn't a very good seamstress in the brightest light, let alone when she couldn't see clearly. Once she'd finished sewing up all the biggest rips, her skirt had several odd bunches, and the hem, which now hung at varying heights in accidental pleats, was inches shorter than it had been when she began.
Oh well. At least she wasn't completely scandalous now. She might look ridiculous, but it was the kind of ridiculous that could still be seen in public.
Nevertheless, she decided to leave the smaller rips alone. Her dress had had enough trauma.
Besides, the moon had almost passed to the other side of the gorge's edge, and it was now dark enough that she could sleep. She curled up on the ground, wrapping her bedroll more tightly around herself, and fell asleep next to the already snoring Ms. White.
The next morning, Ms. White woke her far too early, and Daphne rolled out of her messy blanket, ending up groaning on the sand. If only she'd been able to fall asleep sooner. She pulled on her dress, which looked even worse in the daylight, and helped pack up camp, eating another roll. She was sick of half-stale bread and dried meat. She wanted some fruit. An apple, maybe.
That day was long and arduous. Daphne and Ms. White swam through the next three canyons, walked through one, climbed around the outside edge of another, swam through yet another, and emerged, finally, in the last gorge they would be in. This one actually had grass in it, and the river they'd been following was reduced to a narrow stream. Coming down the right side, which Daphne decided must be the eastern edge, was a small, narrow track that wound back and forth along the wall. It looked very dangerous, like something more fit for goats than people. Very nimble goats.
"We have to go up that?" she said, crestfallen.
Ms. White nodded. She glanced at Daphne and said sympathetically, "How about we stop for lunch first?"
"That would be good," Daphne agreed. Even stale biscuits were better than climbing that ledge. Besides, once they started, there would be no stopping.
While they ate, Ms. White said, "I'm sorry I've been so uptight this trip, Daphne. It's nothing you've done. I'm just... tense."
"It's all right," Daphne assured her. She thought she understood, after hearing Ms. White's story. And now that she'd apologized everything was good.
They finished lunch and readied themselves for the climb. Daphne noticed, as she tied her lumpy skirt back away from her legs, that Ms. White was visibly nervous. She wasn't sure if it was the cliff they'd be scaling or the fact that as soon as they got to the top, they'd be in Artisa, a country Ms. White had almost been queen of. Ms. White had never exactly said that she might have been queen there, but Daphne wasn't thick. She'd put two and two together and was almost positive she'd come up with the right answer.
They scaled the cliff. It was every bit as hard as Daphne had thought it would be. The sandstone was crumbly, and almost broke when she stepped on it a few times. At its thickest, the winding ledge they were walking on was a little over a foot wide. At its narrowest, Daphne's foot was wider than it was, and she had to cling desperately to the wall to keep from falling off. Some places, the trail was so steep she and Ms. White were practically climbing straight up the face of it to get to a place where it would flatten out again. There was nowhere they could sit down, nowhere even that the could really lean against the wall and catch their breath safely, though they did make do a few desperate times. It was dark again by the time they made it to the top, collapsing exhausted on the ground above the Tracks.
Daphne was extremely grateful to be out and on regular ground again. The Tracks were gorgeous, she'd admit that readily, but she'd be perfectly content to never see them again. They were too deep, too hard to navigate between, and not nearly safe enough to make it worth it.
Ms. White rolled over onto her stomach with a groan and muttered, "We should probably set up camp."
"Can't we just sleep here?" Daphne begged.
Ms. White shook her head and said, "I don't want either of us to roll over in our sleep and fall back down there."
If Daphne had had more energy, she would have made a joke about not wanting to climb all that way again after the work she'd just done. Instead, she pushed herself up again, fighting the shaking muscles in her arms and legs to rise first to a sitting position, then a stand. She steadied herself as Ms. White stood, too, and the two stumbled off to look for a suitable place to make camp.
"I'd hoped to get to an inn tonight," Ms. White told Daphne as they walked, "But it took longer to get up than I thought it would."
"Sorry," Daphne apologized.
Ms. White shook her head. "Not your fault," she assured her. "It's been years since I made that climb, it was steeper than I remembered."
They didn't make camp, really. They unrolled their blankets and climbed into them, eating the last of their meat and cheese and almost all of their bread in the dark in their beds. Even the full moon didn't keep Daphne up that night. She was asleep by the time Ms. White finished eating.
The next day they began walking through Artisa. They past an inn around midmorning, and Daphne decided she was glad they hadn't tried to get to it the night before. It was two hours' walk away, and she'd probably have collapsed before they got there.
She was very conscious of her odd clothing and messy hair as they walked, but Ms. White wouldn't stop and buy anything. She'd only brought a little money, she said, and that had to be used for food and beds, not clothes. They would get her something new when they made it to the capital city. Daphne gave in without mugh fight, though she was very embarrassed.
It took them five days of walking to make it to Artisa's capital. It was a pleasant walk. Artisa in summer was a beautiful place, and Daphne was glad to be there. Her bad memories from her schooling there faded a little in comparison to these happy people, all going proudly about their work. She decided that it was likely that only some of the people were bad like the ones who had fostered her. And with the things they made, it was hard to begrudge these people anything. They were amazing, and the closer they got to the capital city, the more skill Daphne saw.
Finally, they made it to the castle, and after Snow spoke to the guards, they were let in to see the king.
AN~ It's a bit longer than most of the other chapters, to make up for the wait and because it was the best spot to end it. Next chapter will probably be about Puck and Sabrina, since I'm trying to be a little more chronological than I was before.
Feature: "Enemies only Not Really" by Thats My Name
One of those rare Puckabrina fics that I like. It's adorable, makes me happy, and ought to be read.
Some Review Replies:
Guest: I did. I said the latest I would update would be the sixteenth. I guess that does imply that I might update sooner, but I never really planned to, because I had two papers, two portfolios, one project, and three finals to do within the space of a week. And that week was last week. Sorry about that. I'm glad you like it, though!
Silver Shadows: If you kill me I'll never update again. Just saying. YOU WILL NEVER KNOW HOW IT ENDS. I think I win.
SilSha: Well, that's interesting. You can't win that QotU for two reasons, though: First, it's closed. Second, you have to say something about the chapter to be eligible.
crazy: Glad you like it. I had finals. They're over now. Updates will resume on schedule now, hopefully.
crazy person: I'm not stopping the story. I just needed a finals break.
AlyssaHockey36: Well a way to fix that would be to remove it, see?