Authors: Leah Cypess
Tags: #Speculative Fiction
my first reader
my last (but not least!) reader
and to Shoshana & Hadassah,
I hope you will read this someday,
and know why Mommy was
scribbling in those notebooks while
she followed you around the playground
She knew every inch of the forest, every narrow path…
She woke in a satin-lined bed with green canopies hanging…
When Isabel got to her room later that night, the…
I should have told him. The two guards in the…
Blood. On her hands, dripping to the floor, soaking the…
When the attack came, it was completely unexpected.
Isabel caught up with Rokan halfway down the stairs, on…
In her room, surrounded by green, Isabel went straight to…
That same night Isabel stole a horse and rode back…
The rain started two days later and didn’t stop for…
Isabel found Rokan in the stable yard preparing for a…
The guests for Rokan’s coronation began arriving in full force…
“He got away,” Isabel said in disgust, striding into Rokan’s…
It might have been easier if they had put Rokan…
The throne was uncomfortable. It shouldn’t have been—it should have…
Isabel was not particularly surprised when, the next morning, she…
Two nights later Isabel found herself in Clarisse’s room, waiting…
The Shifter would have been there. Helping Rokan put his…
knew every inch of the forest, every narrow path that twisted and wound its way beneath the silver branches. They never should have found her. She should have been up and away long before the horses’ scent came to her, and very long before the sound of men’s whispering drifted to her ears. Through the trees or in them, even above them, she could have fled in an instant, or hidden herself so well that they could scour the forest for days and never find her.
Her ankle was hurt, or it never would have happened. So she told herself for days afterward. And even much later, when she knew much more, she still thought it might be true. Whatever instinct made her wait for the prince to find her, it was given strength by the effort it would have cost her to move.
Her forest was an old one, the earth covered with layers of moss and dead leaves, the huge trees covering the sky with vast foliage and wrapping thick roots around mounds of earth. It wasn’t a wood that was easy to ride through—there were no straight lines or even meandering ones. No one would have dared blaze a trail here, and if they had they would have soon regretted it. And always there was the mist, rising through the ferns like tiny feathers, sometimes thinning to a layer of white on the ground and sometimes drifting in hazy clouds that tried to smother the trees.
Only a fool would ride here—a fool with an urgent need. And somewhere, in a stirring in the back of her mind that wasn’t even a thought, she knew what they needed. She stayed where she was until the prince rode into the small clearing and reined in his nervous horse.
She knew he was a prince as soon as she saw him. Not because he was dressed like one; his black riding habit and green cape, while dramatic, could have belonged to any nobleman. His face was chiseled and sharp-jawed, but a bit too drawn to be regal. Nor was it his bearing. He was disheveled and tired, and right before he saw her he uttered a curse that would have fit the mouth of the coarsest peasant.
He reined in his horse, which
a beast fit for a king, and stared at her. “Will!”
The boy who rode behind resembled him closely enough to be his twin, except he was several years younger, barely in his teens. He gaped. “Is it her?”
“Who else could it be?” The prince leaned over his horse’s neck, and—lowering his voice as if trying not to frighten her—said, “Isabel?”
Then she tried to run. She leaped to her feet and her ankle twisted beneath her, too weak to hold her weight. By the time she dragged herself off the ground, the prince was kneeling beside her.
“Are you all right, my lady?”
She struck at him, fingers curved into claws. The prince jumped back, but not fast enough. She left four diagonal slashes on his left cheek, and the bottom three had welled up with redness by the time he looked down at her. His eyes were so dark they appeared black, wide and wary beneath slashing eyebrows.
“Don’t do that,” he said, not even reaching up to touch his cheek. It was somewhere between a command and a plea.
Isabel snarled and lunged at him again, ignoring the pain that shot through her ankle. This time he jumped away fast enough.
“Rokan?” The younger boy’s voice was high with fear. “What’s wrong with her?”
“Hush, Will.” His eyes still on hers, the prince stuck his hand into his belt pouch and drew out a thin bracelet shaped of tiny metal links, with a crystal embedded in each one. Most of the crystals were pure white, but every third one was deep red.
“Isabel?” the prince said, very quietly, and extended the bracelet to her.
Her hand went up without her conscious control, as if from long habit it knew what to do. Not up to attack, but in a fluid, graceful motion, her palm down and her fingers limp. She did not move when the prince brought both his hands toward hers, though her arm tensed and trembled. He laid the bracelet on her wrist, and she let out a sigh when it touched her skin.
The prince fastened the clasp with one smooth movement. Then he took her hand, and she let him draw her to her feet, keeping her weight off the weak ankle. She felt dazed.
“Isabel,” the prince said with a note of satisfaction in his voice. “By the Shifter’s Seal on your wrist, do you swear to serve me and mine with all your abilities and powers, to defend us and protect us and keep us safe from all harm?”
She looked up at him and said, “What?”
He grinned then, his dark eyes gleaming, and she lost any hope of turning and running before it was too late. It was already too late. Something about that wide, unrestrained smile…
“I suppose we don’t have to go through all that,” he said. “The legends say we should, but—will you come to my castle with me?”
He waited for an answer, and after a long moment she nodded.
“Rokan,” said Will, who was still mounted. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“Oh, yes.” The prince kept his eyes on her face, but there was an odd glint in them as he said, “I’m afraid you’re going to have to wear clothes, my lady. They’re very traditional where I come from.”
She looked down at herself, then around at the dead leaves surrounding her feet. She spoke again. It had been so long that she was surprised at how easy it was, how readily her voice responded to her mind’s command.
The prince glanced at his younger brother, who was beet red, and then back at her. “Er—I think now would be better.”
She shrugged, and when he drew a pile of fabric out of his saddlebag and handed it to her, memory began to return. “Turn around while I dress,” she said.
The prince raised his eyebrows but obeyed. Will wheeled his horse around.
She put the clothes on—green riding pants and a white silk tunic—and felt comfortable in them as soon as they settled on her. They fit perfectly. She tapped the prince on the shoulder.
“Better?” she asked, almost pertly. She had gotten dressed without even thinking about it, like it was something she had done a million times before. Maybe she had. She still didn’t remember when, or why, but for the moment that didn’t matter. The ease with which she remembered
“Superb.” The prince smiled at her, and she thought she should probably smile back but couldn’t seem to figure out how.
He mounted smoothly and reached down to pull her up behind him. She wrapped her arms around his waist and laid her cheek against his back, and for a moment, an inexplicable moment, she wanted to cry.
The horse began to trot, and she closed her eyes. She didn’t want to see her trees sliding past, sliding away. The prince’s muscles were taut beneath the silk of his tunic. For the briefest of seconds, almost against her will, she shared the excitement she could feel running through him.
She schooled herself into unthinkingness, retreating deeper into her own mind until she couldn’t feel the prince’s body or the jolting of the horse, nothing but the wind against her face. Then she slid in deeper, until she couldn’t even feel that.
woke in a satin-lined bed with green canopies hanging over her head. For a moment she had no idea where she was or why, and she kicked the sheets away in a panic. Her ankle twinged, and she remembered; but she didn’t draw the sheets back up, and she didn’t let go of the panic.
What had she been thinking?
Brushing away the bed’s gauzy draperies, she put her feet on the floor and stood up gingerly, testing her ankle. Still sore, but she could walk on it. In two days it would be completely healed.
If the prince had come two days later, or two days earlier, she wouldn’t be here now.
She took a few steps away from the bed and examined the room—my room, she thought with complete certainty. A great tapestry hung across the wall to the left of the bed, woven forest scenes in muted green and white. The elaborate bed was all gold-trimmed green, as were the few low benches and chairs laid out along the sides of the room. Unbidden, a snatch of song leaped into her head:
For the Shifter’s eyes are green, green, green, as green as the woods she loves….
Straight across from the foot of her bed were two vast windows with a long mirror between them. She limped over and looked in the mirror, with no clear idea of what she expected to see.
Her eyes were brown. So was her hair, which was filthy and hung in dark, limp tangles past her sharp chin. Her skin was pale, with regular but plain features—wide forehead, flat cheekbones, long thin nose. She was still wearing the clothes the prince had given her, and beneath them her body was lean and wiry. She stared at her reflection, certain that she had never seen it before.
She whirled away from the mirror, the name ringing in her head.
. When the prince had called her by that name, it hadn’t mattered; she hadn’t possessed a name, couldn’t remember ever having a name. But now, in these clothes, in this room, she knew she did.
“Are you finally up?” the girl standing in her doorway said with a small smile. “We thought you would sleep forever. You had Rokan quite concerned. He was afraid his trek into the Mistwood had been for nothing.”
The girl kept smiling as she moved forward, the motion of her legs almost invisible beneath her long silk skirt. She was wearing a dark blue dress with a tight bodice and flared sleeves that would be impractical in a fight. Isabel watched her approach. There was nothing else she could do. In these clothes, in this room, as Isabel, she could not attack this girl simply for coming too close to her.
The girl halted when she was only a few feet from Isabel and scrutinized her.
had green eyes, and a wealth of curly blond hair that spilled around her wide face. “I’m Clarisse. Don’t you remember me?”
Isabel shook her head.
“Oh.” Clarisse pursed her full lips and tilted her head to one side. “Oh, well. No doubt you remember Rokan?”
“No,” Isabel said.
“I see.” Clarisse paused, looked her up and down, and smiled again. “Well, good-bye, Isabel. I’ll leave you to get some more rest.”
She turned and walked away without waiting for a response, and Isabel watched her go with narrowed eyes. She did not like that smile. It was too smug. Clarisse had come here for a specific purpose and had accomplished it.
She came, Isabel thought with a flash of clarity, to see me. To decide what she thought of me, and what she could get out of me.
It had been an attack, of sorts, and people did fight who lived in castles like these. Not with fists and feet and claws, but with words and whispers and influence. Isabel couldn’t remember having been here before, but she knew. It was a fight, or rather a game, with many players and many rules and many strategies.
She smiled suddenly, feeling her blood pump through her veins. She didn’t know how, and she didn’t know why, but she was suddenly sure it was a game she knew how to play.
Two guards stood outside her door, brawny young men in blue uniforms with bright, shiny swords. When Isabel asked them where Prince Rokan was, they exchanged glances, looked at her, and then at each other again. Clearly, they had been told to guard her room but didn’t know if they were protecting her or imprisoning her.
Reveling in her ability to discern that from an awkward moment, wondering where she had gained the experience to do so, Isabel tossed her head and said haughtily, “Well? Where can I find him? I must speak to him at once.”
“Er—why don’t you stay here, my lady?” one of the guards said. “We’ll send for him.”
“Nonsense,” Isabel said. “I’ll go to him myself.”
The other guard straightened. “I’m afraid we can’t allow you to do that.”
She turned startled eyes on him, pretending this possibility had never occurred to her. “Can’t
“We were ordered to guard you, my lady. For your own protection. I can’t let you leave until the prince relieves me of my command.”
Isabel eyed him for a moment, then stepped out into the hall.
He reached out. “Stop! I just said—”
Isabel looked over her shoulder, lifted her chin, and froze him with a glare. “You would dare lay a hand on me?”
His hand went still in midair, mere inches from her shoulder. Isabel turned her head and strode away, ignoring the twinge in her ankle.
Neither of them came after her.
The hall was lined with elaborate tapestries, depicting battlefields and romantic idylls in that awkward, stylized way that tapestries did, but the floor was uncovered and the stone was cold against her bare feet. She came to a stairway that curved down into a long pillared hall, and followed it without hesitation. She felt that there should be a long skirt sweeping behind her, and she almost turned to gather it up before she recalled that she was wearing riding pants. For an odd moment she was embarrassed by that.
At the bottom of the stairs was a deserted ballroom. She kept walking, knowing exactly where to go without any clear idea of where it was she was going. At the end of the ballroom, two thick wooden doors stood open, and a constant murmur of voices floated out through them.
Two guards stood at the entrance, right outside the room. They were much better dressed, and apparently better trained, than the guards watching her room. Neither so much as glanced at her as she stepped in front of the doorway, despite her bare feet and her clothes. Isabel hesitated, and her hands went to her hair.
It was a mass of tangled knots. She couldn’t remember having ever brushed it. Isabel frowned. Why should she care about her hair?
She took a step forward so that she was out of the guards’ line of vision. She raised both hands and brushed them lightly over her hair, then looked sharply at the guards to see if they had turned. They were still staring straight ahead.
She took one strand of hair and arranged it over her shoulder. It was long and silky, so blond it was almost gold. She brushed the strands carefully over the white silk of her tunic, then permitted herself a small smile as she strode through the door.
The Challenge Hour was almost over, and the court was restless and bored. Keeping his back straight so he wouldn’t have to lean against the uncomfortable wooden throne, Rokan allowed his eyes to rove over the room. A large hall of maroon and gold, with glittering chandeliers and long mirrors, it seemed crowded and small with the mass of courtiers and ladies milling about on the carved wood floor. This was his thirtieth day of Challenge-sitting, and his last. After today, any challenge to his right to the throne of Samorna would be much more complicated than a straightforward declaration before the court.
Of course, many members of his court liked convoluted routes—in fact, thrived upon them. Rokan kept his eyes moving, noting the people who had been absent for the past twenty-nine days of Challenge-sitting but were here for the last. The soldiers, not one of whom thought he would be as strong as his father; the southern merchants, who feared he wouldn’t be; the northern dukes, who had been waiting for decades for a weak king and were now hoping for him to be one. For him to fail.
I will not fail, Rokan thought, and scanned the room for his few allies. Such as they were.
His sister was there now—he hadn’t seen her enter—leaning against the gold-patterned white wall, watching everything and everyone. Like everyone else, Clarisse was sure he was going to make mistakes, but she was waiting to step in and save him from himself. His younger brother was watching him with eyes alight, and Rokan smiled across the room at him. Willard, of all the people in the room, was the only one who had never even imagined that Rokan might fail. His blind faith made his advice fairly useless, but it was nice to have
around who had confidence in him.
Albin, the high sorcerer, was currently glaring at him—or more specifically, at the scratches on his cheek. Rokan resisted the urge to touch them. He wondered if the Shifter had woken yet—or, as Will had speculated, if she ever would wake. Rokan hadn’t noticed that she was asleep yesterday until the castle had come into sight. Its sprawling stone walls and clusters of soaring towers still impressed even him, and he had turned to see her reaction. But the wild creature holding on to him had been unconscious, her breathing so light that for a panicked moment he had thought she was dead.
She couldn’t be dead. He needed her.
Rokan realized that his fists were clenched, and he hastily relaxed them, hoping none of the constantly watching eyes had noticed. The ride to find the Shifter would have been worth it even if they hadn’t found her; just to ride for an entire morning with no one but Will. It would probably be a year or more before he got to ride like that again.
The shock of being addressed during a Challenge Hour drove all else from Rokan’s mind, making his blood pound. He straightened almost eagerly, seeking the source of the threat.
Then the words sank in:
. This was not a challenge at all.
“Duke Owain,” he said with some resignation.
The duke coughed loudly, his distinguished gray beard masking his expression. “I’m sorry, Your Highness, but I must ask your leave to depart. Lady Daria is feeling ill.”
Despite himself, Rokan’s eyes darted to the young woman beside the duke, who stood with her eyes lowered and a faint blush on her cheeks. He was willing to bet Daria was feeling fine. Owain had spoken for one reason: so Rokan would give the duke’s niece a worried glance, and the court would note it.
Cursing himself for falling into the duke’s trap, Rokan said, “Of course,” and forced himself to meet Clarisse’s eyes. Her face was studiously blank. This morning she had spent an hour warning him to control his impulses.
Easy for her to say.
not made of stone.
But despite his irritation, he knew Clarisse was right.
Rokan had imagined failing many times; imagined the consequences for himself and for all the people who now depended upon him. His father had spelled out his weakness many times: he cared too deeply, wanted too much, acted too quickly when his emotions were involved. And while Rokan had always secretly thought some of those were strengths, that didn’t keep him from recognizing that they might be his downfall anyhow. His father had drilled into him the harsh reality that being a good man and being a good king were two separate, opposite things.
Though according to Clarisse, a stubborn refusal to accept harsh realities was another of his weaknesses.
Which brought his thoughts back to the Shifter, beautiful and feral and surrounded by mist. It was still difficult to believe that she had come with them, that she was here in this castle.
A murmur rose near the back of the room, surprised and slightly scandalized, and he knew the reason for it even before he saw her. For a moment he almost believed his thoughts had summoned her.
She was walking down the maroon carpet that led to the throne, apparently unaware of the way everyone was turning to stare at her. Her hair had changed, becoming long and blond, but everything else was the same. Her wide eyes, her odd, proud beauty—and the way she was staring at him, directly at him, ignoring the crowd around her. The nobles were watching her, startled and speculative, and Rokan sat back.
It was still the Challenge Hour.
A thrill of anticipation went through him as the Shifter stopped before his throne. She was barefoot and dirty and in riding clothes, but something else about her was making the nearest courtiers edge away. It was possible that yesterday he had made the biggest mistake of his life. But the bracelet dangled delicately from her wrist. If he had done this right, she wouldn’t hurt him.
If he had done this right.
The silence stretched unbearably. He tried to clear his throat and couldn’t get his throat muscles to move.
Then she knelt gracefully on one knee but did not bow her head. Her eyes were on him as she spoke.
“Prince Rokan,” she said. Her voice was clear and strong, something he hadn’t noticed in the forest. “I come to serve Your Highness.”
A surge of triumph rose and burst within him. As he straightened, a great bell rang in the distance and every person in the hall sank into a bow or curtsy. Every person but her. For a moment all Rokan could see were the backs of lowered heads and the startling dark eyes of the Shifter, fierce and wild and trained on his face. She didn’t have to bow; she was here to serve him, but she was not his subject, any more than a force of nature could be his subject. His heart beat faster, and he smiled at her exultantly.
The thirtieth day of Challenge was over, and he was king.
An intimate group gathered in the king’s private audience chamber as soon as the Challenge Hour ended. It was clear to Isabel that Rokan would have preferred it to be even more intimate, but he wasn’t given a choice. The moment he stepped off his throne and motioned for her to follow him, Will was by his side. Clarisse had been there even before that.