This is going to be a decent length fic, I think - and my first multi-part Tin Man story. I can't promise to update every week but I promise I won't stop writing the story until it's finished so please bear with me. Don't know why I'm still nervous about posting but never mind! I hope those of you who read this enjoy the journey with me, wherever it takes us :)
There was no time for celebration, no time to spread the joyous word that the youngest princess had returned and freed the elder from possession of the evil witch. Almost as soon as the battle was over, the former advisors and cowardly nobles who'd once served the Royal Family crept out of their hiding places and insisted on an audience with the Queen.
An audience that was granted within weeks.
While she wasn't privy to exactly what had been said, DG learnt enough in the days that followed. The Queen's people demanding more than answers; they demanded a scapegoat, someone to hold accountable and who could be punished for the witch's deeds.
Azkadellia was the obvious choice but her sister was far too weak, too vulnerable to face them. DG didn't give it a second thought, didn't hesitate for a single moment, volunteering herself in her sister's stead.
The Queen tried to fight it but, when DG revealed how her sister had come to be possessed during an impassioned plea to spare Azkadellia any further suffering, the newly reinstated council of the O.Z. made their decision and could not be swayed.
The younger Daughter of Light and saviour of the O.Z. would be punished for bringing the witch's darkness to the land. When their chosen form of punishment was revealed, Queen Lavender fainted into her husband's unsteady arms and Azkadellia collapsed into hysterical sobs.
DG, for her part, stood with her back ramrod straight and took the news calmly.
Princess DG of the Outer Zone was to be punished by execution, hung on the gallows the Sorceress herself had had installed in the square of Central City.
The words didn't make sense. He'd read the letter three, maybe four times and still the words didn't make any sense.
"Dad? You okay?"
Instead of answering, Cain waved the hand holding the sheet of paper in his son's direction, his cool blue gaze starting blankly into the space in front of him.
"Is it another letter from the Queen? Further orders?" Jeb Cain, Captain of the newly reformed Queen's Guard took the letter without hesitation. He scanned the hastily scrawled sentences, the crease in his brow getting deeper with every word. "They can't do that!" He burst out once he was finished reading. He looked from his father to the letter and back again. "Surely the Queen can't allow..."
"The Queen's weak," Cain interrupted wearily. He took his fedora off with one hand, using the other to rub his temples. "She can't afford to alienate those who support her, not with so much unrest in the O.Z."
"Yeah, but surely she can do something! She's not going to let them hang DG – they can't! The people will be in uproar!" Jeb shook his head, unable to understand it. Although there'd been no official release from the palace, the people of the O.Z. knew the shift in their fortune was related to DG's return. Everyone he and his men had spoken to, every village they rode through, had had nothing but good things to say about the Queen's youngest daughter. He didn't want to witness their reaction once the news spread; didn't want to think about the despair and anger and conflict the announcement would surely create. "The Queen has to know how unwise this is. She'll be facing a civil war in next to no time."
"She probably won't care," his father said after a while. "Not after losing DG again. It'll destroy her, destroy the whole family."
"Leaving room for some noble idiot to move in and seize the throne," Jeb finished grimily, "which is probably exactly why they're doing this. The nobles and advisors who fled can't take on the House of Gale unless it's weakened first."
The two Cain men sat in silence for a long time, staring into the dying flames of the camp fire as the first of the two suns rose in the cloudless sky above. When his men woke and gradually joined them, Jeb broke the news to his Second-in-Command, trusting the former soldier of the rebellion army to spread the word.
And spread it did, along with the grumblings and mutterings that something – anything – had to be done. Not one of the soldiers travelling with them had a bad word to say about the young princess and not one was willing to stand by and let her be taken from them for a second time.
It wasn't until midday, when they'd already started moving, riding towards the outskirts of the Zone that Wyatt Cain stopped his mount, tugging lightly on the reins until his horse was facing in the opposite direction of the men he was travelling with.
Towards Central City, DG and the gallows waiting for her.
"Go," Jeb told his father, grey-blue eyes meeting icy blue ones for the first time since breaking camp that morning. "We'll gather as many men as we can and meet you there."
Cain gave his son a small nod – of thanks and of acknowledgement – and spurred his horse into moving.
Central City was almost a full day's ride away, longer if he ran into any unfriendlies on the way. He clenched his jaw and said a silent apology to his horse for the punishing journey ahead of them.
No matter where she went in the palace, DG always seemed to cause some sort of commotion. If it wasn't maids bursting into floods of tears at the sight of her or stoic guards offering to smuggle out of the palace to help her escape her fate while knowing that if they were overheard or caught, her fate would become theirs, it was a member of Lord Calletta's party, sneering at her and making snide comments about her bleak future.
The Lord, it seemed, was already making the palace at Central City and no one, not her mother or her father or any of those still loyal to the House of Gale could stop him.
DG didn't understand it, not one bit.
Lord Calletta had spent most of the witch's reign hiding in the Blood Mountains, named for the few perfect rubies that had been found there some centuries ago. Little had been found since and anyone who attempted to mine there simply didn't return, adding to the mysterious reputation the mountains had.
How he'd ended up head of her mother's council, DG didn't know and no one else could explain it, either. All anyone knew was that he and his party of servants and guards – the majority of them malnourished, through their leader hadn't seemed to have suffered – had ridden into the city one day and demanded refuge.
Queen Lavender had welcomed them graciously into her home; Lord Calletta was, after all, the only son of one of the O.Z's most noble families – and the only surviving child of a couple DG learned her mother had once been close to.
After that, Lord Calletta had quickly been welcomed back into the fold by the others who swarmed around the Queen like flies on something unpleasant. Instead of being treated like the coward he was, he was given a hero's welcome. He was brave, the others said, for taking his servants with him instead of leaving them to the witch's mercy. He was wise, apparently, for fleeing into the mountains – courageous, even, for risking it not knowing what awaited him.
Brave, wise, courageous, strong, handsome... blah, blah, blah. DG wasn't impressed by the young Lord which, she supposed, was what had earned her his wrath. She didn't flutter around him or simper like the daughters of the other noble's who'd returned to the city to reclaim their land and titles did. She didn't fawn all over him and fall at his feet or plead to be told the same boring story of that one time he and his people had encountered a wild mountain cat – a female, DG guessed, after hearing of the poor beast's struggle to defend her cubs. She wasn't at all impressed – more like sickened – by the heavy fur robe he wore on the cooler nights, especially after he told the story and explained that the two cubs had kept his people fed for days.
On the first telling of the story, DG had struggled to keep her disgust from showing. On the fourth and fifth telling, she'd made no secret of her anger at the Lord's actions and her pity for the poor animals.
Lord Calletta hadn't been pleased with her response and had made no secret of it. She had found herself walking through the hallways of her family home feeling like she was walking around with a target painted on her back.
And that was before the meeting, before the council had demanded someone be punished for what had happened.
Before, DG thought as she escaped to the rooftop gardens for a moment's respite, Lord Calletta had made his intentions towards her known. He had casually mentioned over dinner one night that it was high time she found herself a husband and shouldn't she chose someone a little older, wiser, with the respect of his peers. More than a little infuriated by the cocky way he'd implied she should look no further than across the table, DG had smartly countered that when she someone who met that description and who she found worthy of her affections asked for her hand in marriage, she would consider it.
With a sigh, she sat down on one of the stone benches overlooking the city and tried to keep her mind from straying in the direction it always seemed to whenever marriage was mentioned or at least thought of.
The one direction it shouldn't – couldn't – go in because it just wasn't possible, especially not with a death sentence looming over her.
She wasn't sure how long she sat in the garden, inhaling the once foreign but slowly growing familiar once more blooms of the flowers around her. The longer she stayed in the O.Z., the clearer her childhood memories became – something that both delighted and saddened her father, who was slowly regaining his youngest daughter just as soon as he was losing her again.
"I sent them letters." It was his voice that startled her now as he joined her in the garden. He sat down beside her, his hand resting next to hers on the cool stone surface. "I don't know if they'll get them in time or even if they'll get them at all but I sent them. I tried to tell them."
'Tried to ask them for help,' DG added silently, not needing clarification on who 'they' were. The true heroes of the Eclipse, the three men who'd stood by her side and kept her alive during the first days of her return to the Zone.
Three men who, she knew, her father was hoping would somehow be able to defy the odds and keep her alive once more.
Instead of telling him she doubted it would help, DG moved her hand to cover her father's. "Thank you, Dad."
Ahamo cleared his throat, his fingers tightening almost painfully around hers. He said nothing else, unable to speak past the lump in his throat even if he had known what to say. His wife was fading before his eyes, her body giving up as her light was drained away by the stress and grief. His eldest daughter was a shell of her childhood self, a recluse by choice who couldn't look at her own reflection for fear of what she might see staring back and his youngest, his spitfire... The one light in his miserable existence, the one thing that kept him hoping for a happy ending...
Her light still shone brightly but only until those who would revel in his family's misfortune could extinguish it for good.
"Do you think it'll hurt for long?" DG asked after a long silence, her voice sounding so much like the child he remembered that it caused his already breaking heart to ache anew. "Toto told me I can use my magic to block out most of it, put myself in some kind of trance, but I don't know if I can learn how to in such a short space of time."
Tutor had also told her in whispered tones that she could use her light to break the rope and flee unrecognised into the crowd but DG had shook her head at that, knowing to do so would only be to line her sister up to take her place. Besides, she'd pointed out, Lord Calletta had taken a cruel pleasure in telling her that the rope they were going to use had been conjured by the Sorceress herself. As such, it was magically reinforced and protected so that any spell designed to break it would rebound and cause it instead to tighten harder.
"Just don't think about it," was all her father could manage, his eyes clouded over with the tears she could hear in his voice. "Don't think about it, Spitfire, not until you have to."
She had to think of it every waking second, DG thought, and even those rare moments where she slept. It was impossible not to. Still, for his sake, she forced herself to nod and went back to sitting in silence, watching as the suns rose to their peak before sinking behind the Blood Mountains once more.
Another day over and another step day closer to her last.