Based on a prompt at Merry Fates, based on "The Turret Stairs" by Frederic Burton.
Warning: I'm slightly dark and twisted.
Only the moonlight, the twittering birds and the guards were outside on the cold winter’s night. The foot soldiers watch the castle, protecting the preciousness that’s hidden inside. The royal family: King Jensen. Queen Annabelle.
Quinlan stalks outside the horse stables while I hide behind the hay. His sword is poised at his side and a bored expression is etched into every nook and cranny of his face. I am help captive in my castle, and I want out.
The hem of my dress grows filthier and the pungent smell makes me regret my decision to sneak out. But I need to breathe. I need my freedom. I am not a canary to be caged. I only have one life.
I intend to live it.
Once again, Quinlan paces back and forth, his shoe catching the tip of his sword, kicking it as he walks, like a disturbed dance. I almost laugh, but stifle the sound with the trail of my sleeve. I have known Quinlan all my life. His father is the leader of the guards, so he spent many an afternoon keeping me company in the castle, each of us itching to discover secret passage ways hidden in the depths of the stone castle, and only finding secrets hidden behind its doors.
One of which is the bounty on my head, haunting me since my youth.
But two months ago the first serious attempt was taken by the lake, and I only just escaped capture.
Hence the increase in protection detail, and the fraying of my nerves.
Quinlan seems to be alone, bathed in the eerily bright moonlight reflecting off the courtyard.
Hunched behind the hay, I caw like a crow and hopes he remembers our signal from when we were children.
I don’t know what disappoints me more: that he didn’t remember, or that I thought he would. Quinlan and I haven’t spoken for three years, ever since he joined the guards and I was sought out for official duties. When my life became too complicated.
When my life was no longer mine to live.
Quinlan pauses for a moment, but shakes his head, thinking he has imagined the noise that incited the shiver up his spine, as it had mine. But unlike him I chose not to ignore the sound. The sound of boot soles crunching against leaves, trying—and failing—to be silent.
Then he attacked.
Quinlan’s cat-like reflexes kicked in, thankfully, as his assailant darted at him with slash after slash. Quinlan parried and defended, metal crashing against metal, ringing out into the night. But no help could be found.
I pause, enthralled and anxious, watching as Quinlan’s movements became more frantic and less skilled. He was getting tired. This could be dangerous. This could kill him.
My stomach drops at the thought. Searching high and low across the stable walls, a scythe cries out to me like seraphim. I slip towards it, careful not to make too much noise. The handle is heavier than I imagined, the long blade coated in a thin film of rust and history.
I heave it from the wall and it crashes into the floor. I cannot lift it, and Quinlan’s grunts become more pronounced and his attacker draws closer. Beside the scythe lies a pitchfork, used to bundle hay together for turning in the heart of summer. I grasp it, feeling its weight reassure me as I hold it steadily at my waist and draw the scythe along the ground behind me, its blade ringing in protest.
The assailant is ten feet away.
He turns at the noise.
This is my chance, and I take it.
The pitchfork is airborne and falls in a downward arc through the muscles of his right leg. He cries out. Quinlan scrambles for his sword, which he lost in the struggle. But despite the blood loss and the pain, the attacker knows his target. He knows I am the one he will get the reward for capturing. Feasts and riches will reign down on him when he serves my head on a silver platter for the neighbouring king.
I can’t let that happen.
His grin grows wide, he tears the pitchfork from his leg and comes toward me, sword drawn and eye menacing. He is the hawk. I am the mouse.
I am about to die.
That is something I cannot fathom. Cannot accept.
Something washes over me, a sudden encompassing calm. I do not cry. I do not whimper. I merely say “Goodnight.”
And once he is close enough, I life the scythe and swing.
There is an arc of blood, a crumpling body, and a rolling head, before the scythe returns to my side and rips my sleeve apart, slicing through the soft skin of my forearm. I grunt and drop the weapon. Nausea roils through me.
I stand, unmoving, and look upon the mess I have made.
“Lina?” Quinlan stares at me in shock. It is enough to propel me across the courtyard, through the back kitchen and toward my room, tears threatening to spill from my eyes.
I climb. And climb. And climb some more.
Finally, the familiar limestone brickwork and flickering candlelight greets me, my bedroom beckoning me for sleep so I can pretend this is all a dream. A terrible nightmare.
Hearing the footsteps clamber up the stairs, reverberating off the secretive stones and turrets, does nothing to settle my nerves.
“Lina,” his voice calls, growing uncertain as he grasps the final footstep separating us, but feeling like a cavern in between. “Princess Lina,” I incline my head toward him, feeling the rush of emotion waving like flags in my veins, and look away once more.
Fear. Nausea. Shock. Uncertainty.
That is all I feel.
All I know.
All I am.
“May I ask why you followed me, Quinlan?” My voice is sharp and bitter as gooseberries, clipped to emulate my position, my god-given right.
What I have put on the line this very night.
Quinlan hangs his head, trying to shake away the shock. “Lina, look at me,”
I say nothing.
I do nothing.
“Quinlan, leave me.”
“You saved my life, Lina.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I push on the wooden panels, wishing them to fall away beneath my hand, but I can’t seem to enter the room. My breath freezes in my chest, my muscles ice.
“I would be dead if you hadn’t helped. He had his sword poised for the kill. You...you saved me. How can I repay you?”
“You want to help me? Pretend it never happened.” I say, looking at him briefly. His dark hair, his darker eyes. The shadow of the boy I used to know hidden behind the safety of the red guards uniform.
Quinlan grasps my sleeve, fingering the torn fabric and spattered blood. “You’re hurt.” I do not look at him, or speak, but feel his fingers trail like butterfly wings across the wound, holding my arm in his grasp.
“I’ll live.” I whisper.
“As will I.” He says.
“Goodnight Quinlan.” I say, pushing on the doorframe, but am stilled by the fleeting feeling of his lips against my skin, pressing softly against my wound, lingering against my blood stained skin.
The night is still. The castle quiet. Tendrils of my flame-red hair hang free from my braid.
“Thank you, Lina.”
“I miss you Quinlan.” I draw myself from him and enter the room, lean against the dark wood door, and promise that tomorrow is just another day. That living in the moment means yesterday does not exist.
How I wish for this moment not to exist.
Because Princesses are meant to sit pretty and be poised. They are not meant to be armed and dangerous.
The funny thing is, at that moment of death, I had never felt more alive.