The roads between villages at times were barely roads at all, depending on how much the local Lord paid attention to his holdings. She let Gorlouis pick his way along what had turned into little more than a track about a mile away from the village. The dragon’s words pricked and scraped at her.
Because the dragon was correct. She was to be one and twenty within a few months time and a spell such as the one set upon her would not rebound upon the caster. Her life would have been much easier if it was so.
Roxana didn’t have to look down at herself to know what her armor looked like, worn and dented. The hilt of her sword where it wasn’t wrapped in fraying leather was smooth and shiny from handling. The leather of the saddle and of Gorlouis’ harness was also worn and well used. She smelled like sweat, blood and Gorlouis, a musky sulfurous scent. She hadn’t a bath in days. She itched. She didn’t look like a Princess. She didn’t smell like a Princess. And she certainly didn’t feel like a Princess. Most the time, she didn’t even think of herself as a Princess.
But she was most certainly a Princess, even though she hadn’t lived in her parent’s castle past one month of age.
It was a common enough story, most Princesses and no few Princes were cursed. She’d been born to an older King and Queen, their first child to survive to full term. Queen Isabella was overjoyed to have a child. Much to her father’s, King Stefano’s disappointment, she was a girl instead of the male heir he’d always dreamed of. At her christening, witches and good fae had been invited from all over the Kingdom to give her blessings. Except for one who was technically outside of the Kingdom’s borders, she was still close enough that she should have been given an invitation.
Her parents, as required due to their station, had thrown a huge party and her betrothed, a toddler, and his parents had attended.
Roxana reached up to involuntarily touch the pearl pendant hidden under her armor.
When all of those who had been invited had arrived, her father had demanded that the blessings and gifts that the witches and fae were to give her weren’t to be what he deemed useless female trifles. This threw them into a panic and they had to have an argument over what gifts and blessings they could give that weren’t useless but still be appropriate for a Princess.
Roxana forgot the list, but before the last spell caster could give her blessing, the one witch, who happened to be an evil witch and most certainly should have received an invitation to prevent such a calamity, had descended upon the gathering and laid a curse upon Roxana for the imagined slight from her parents.
It had been a death curse to be set upon her eighteenth birthday. The trigger to set the curse a commonplace item found in any household. Roxana couldn’t remember what it was, nor did she think it mattered anymore. It could have been a fork for all she knew.
From the moment, the curse had touched her, her hair, which had been a dark brown almost black, had turned into a bright fiery red.
Usually, the evil witch departed in a cackle of laughter after laying her curse.
But before she could leave, the good fae, who hadn’t any sense in Roxana’s opinion, had leapt forward and changed the curse from death to sleep to be awakened by true love’s kiss. But the evil witch wasn’t done. She saw that the good fae had twisted her curse to something not lethal, she twisted the curse again, turning the fae’s nature against it.
Then the witch had laughed and left.
Of course, her parents had been devastated and terrified. There was no way that they could gather all the items and destroy them. Things like forks were in every household and everyone needed them. They’d sent her away, thinking that maybe distance would soften the curse instead of remembering that the curse was set upon her and not upon the palace itself and that the curse had a set time to activate. But Roxana had been bundled up in her blanket and sent away with one of the good witches to be raised away from her parents and her country. And yes, the good witch had used forks.
Within a few years, her mother had conceived again and then bore her father a son. Roxana hadn’t ever met her little brother. She hadn’t ever met her parents either.
The good witch had taken Roxana to the enclave where she had been living. It had been a temporary enclave, and soon after her christening, they’d packed everything up and returned to their homeland taking Roxana with them.
The people that the good witch belonged to were a tribe of witches, mage smiths and warriors that espoused loyalty to no country. They were a tribe of small magic with a mission to cleanse the world of evil sorcery. The good witch had raised Roxana as if Roxana were her own daughter.
There had been no difference in Roxana’s upbringing than the rest of the children in the small tribe where the good witch lived. She’d ate what they ate, learned the same things they’d learned and dressed as they dressed. And when she was old enough, they had taught her their special spell to cleanse the evil magic from witches, fae, sorcerers and all manners of monsters that they twisted to their bidding.
They had taught her this because she had magic as in integral part of her being. She was royalty and all true royals wielded a small amount of magic as they administered their lands and this magic was passed down from parents to child during coronations where the spells were set Monarchs could not abuse or hurt their lands without in a way hurting themselves. Monarchs were tied to the lands they ruled. Even her betrothal had been set with royal magic as it would join two lands into one.
It was a small magic that she had, but it was enough to set the cleansing spell. And because, her magic was only enough to set the spell, the warriors had taught her their ways she could get close enough to the evil magicians to set the spell in the first place for it required the blood of the evil magician to tie the magic to them. And while her own magic would eventually come back, they had taught her how to gather magic from the magical forces now cleansed of evil taint that would be left over from the fight.
It had been a simple life, not a bad life and the lessons sufficiently challenging to keep her happy.
Cleansing witches left, escorted by their oath bound warriors, to rid the lands of evil magicians and monsters. Others returned with stories, trophies and money that supported the tribe. Of course, some that left never had returned while she’d been there. They were feared dead. Some had been her teachers, and others became her friends.
She’d been nearing sixteen when they told her the truth of her heritage. It still filled her with horror and revulsion what the evil witch had done to her when she had been nothing but an innocent child who had done no wrong to the witch. The tribe espoused the virtues of freedom, free will and choice. To them, what the witch had done to her was anathema and Roxana shared their views. It was terrifying to know that her life was careening towards an end over which she had no control.
She’d resolved she would fight it. She would gain control over it. She’d left the tribe at sixteen with Gorlouis as her escort to find the witch, get her to remove the curse and then cleanse the world of her evil. And she’d been traveling for close to five years with little to show for it except more curses piled upon her head and a pocket that was almost always empty.
Roxana ground her teeth. She was running out of time.
Gorlouis heard her teeth grinding and decided to interrupt her private musings. “This is how it always is. We do all the work. Then they don’t want to pay and want us to do more work for free on top of it.”
Roxana shook her head, clearing her thoughts and bringing her mind back to their present situation. “Gorlouis, your sarcastic ass isn’t helping.”
“Next time, I’ll be an ass.” Gorlouis said with dignity.
“Hee haw!” Gorlouis mocked. “We should ask for our fee up front. Save the torch and pitchfork routine.”
“A great way to beggar villages and commit fraud.” Roxana muttered. “You’d think they hadn’t been taken in before by that sort of ploy. We get paid after, not before.”
“Just saying,” Gorlouis tossed his head.
“Perhaps you could apply yourself to us getting where we need to go a little faster.” Roxana replied. “Hmm?”
“I signed on for adventure, not that much adventure.”
“I smell humans.”
“Bandits.” Roxana put her hand on the hilt of her sword and twisted around on the saddle looking around.
“Could be. Could be hunters.”
“Then why are you talking?” She said and looked down between the horse’s ears.
“Because they don’t smell that close,” Gorlouis said, his tone musing. He trailed off. He stopped in the middle of the road and inhaled deeply. He sneezed a couple times. “I stand corrected. They’re like humans but not actually human.”
Roxana’s brow furrowed. “Evil?”
“I’ve never smelled anything like them before. Anyways, they’re moving away from us at a great speed.” Gorlouis shrugged.
“Thus, the not entirely human.” Roxana muttered. “Funny, the headman didn’t say anything about near human creatures.”
“When you’ve got monsters roaming your woods, what is one more? And perhaps he didn’t know they existed.” Gorlouis shook his head rapidly and started moving again, trotting. “If they are evil, they’re moving because the land won’t accept them any longer. If they aren’t, who can fathom the motivations of monsters? Not me. Do you want to chase them?”
Roxana considered it and then looked at her bags, which were flat. She frowned. “No.” It wasn’t their business.
Gorlouis flicked his ears. “If you’re still determined to visit the local Lord we can.”
Roxana frowned. “And tell him what? My horse smelled something odd on the road, but I didn’t get glimpse of them. I’ve had enough of being patted on the head and told to be a good woman, put my skirts back on properly and not worry my head about the business of men.”
“I’d pay to see you in a skirt.” Gorlouis murmured.
“In your dreams, dragon.” Roxana snapped.
“One day,” he said, “Your life will be nothing but fancy parties in pretty dresses dancing with your prince charming.”
Roxana kicked him hard.
“How incredibly boring.” Roxanna muttered.
Gorlouis shook himself more like a dog than a horse and the glamour dropped away leaving him back in his usual skin. He chuckled, small flames coming out of his mouth and nostrils. He increased his trot into an all out run, expanded his wings and leapt into the air.
Roxana locked her legs around his middle and dropped the reins to clutch at his harness. As he took into the air, the spells in the golden jewelry of his wings activated and a chameleon spell that mimicked whatever was around it, in this case the blue of the sky, wrapped around him and Roxana, rendering them almost invisible to those below them.
He kept his eyes open for the next village. The track meandered below them. He could barely see it in the trees, but he kept his eye on it as it was leading him to where he needed to go. It would take a horse two days to travel between the two villages. He could get them before sunset if he didn’t lose the trail.
The sun had started to sink lower on the western horizon and below him the trail finally widened meeting up with other roads. Gorlouis banked and in a loose spiral began to descend. He kept his eyes on the ground. He snorted when he saw a great many people on the road and changed his landing spot to a clearing.
He settled and flipped his wings close to his body. The chameleon spell faded. He called upon the spells in the tiger-eye again. He didn’t have to hold the jewels in his hand to set the spells. He liked to. The glamour of the horse settled over him and he flicked an ear at Roxana.
She was looking at her hair again and grumbling. What type of witch only knew the hair growth curse? It had grown again. She took off the leather thong that tied off the braid and cut it off. She tossed it on the ground in front of Gorlouis.
Gorlouis obliged her and blew fire on it until there was nothing but ash and a black spot where the hair had been.
“Stupidest curse ever,” she grumbled and tied the thong back on. She didn’t feel like braiding it back up tight again.
Gorlouis flicked his tail. They started towards the village. He picked his way through the trees towards where he remembered the road being. His ears flicked back and forth as he listened to the sounds of the forest. Roxana kept her hand on the hilt of her sword. She didn’t ask why Gorlouis had chosen to land in the middle of the forest instead of the road. She trusted him.
He stopped in the undergrowth on the edge of the road, partially hidden by a tree and waited as a group of travelers went by. They were chatting and talking to each other. There were several long strings of horses tied together and being carefully watched by their tenders.
Gorlouis turned his head to Roxana.
“Horse faire,” Roxana murmured. “We might be in luck for once.” Praise her ancestors that she’d never been cursed with bad luck.
Horse fairs guaranteed a certain amount of safety in the town. There would be plenty of news as bards flocked to horse fairs from all over the countryside for the amount of money the patrons could fling their way. There were more than horses at the fair too as other livestock would be traded and sold. And if it was a large faire, then the horse traders could be from far away themselves.
The only thing that wouldn’t be guaranteed was a room at an inn. Living the way she did, geography and the calendar never much mattered to her outside the changing of the seasons. She nodded. “Let’s risk it and pray that we are early enough to get a room and a stall for you.”
Gorlouis looked down his nose at her. The last line had not been necessary at all, but he couldn’t say anything. He stuck his head out and took a quick glance back and forth to make sure the road was clear before stepping out and into a trot.
A stall for him indeed.
Read Chapter Three
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