Darkness descended across the land when Bella reached Crimrose Woods. It would be the last, and longest, section of their journey before arriving at Castle Thorn. Bella always felt uneasy riding through the supposedly cursed woods. When she was a child her mother would tell her tales of the Lord of Beasts that lived in a massive castle at the center of Crimrose Woods. Finish your dinner, or the Crimrose Beast will eat you! Go to sleep, or the Lord of Beasts will get you!
As she grew older she’d pushed these tales to the back of her mind, recognizing them for what they were – scare stories. But every time she traveled through the woods the stories always resurfaced.
Once upon a time there lived a young but powerful Lord. He was the favorite of the King and his armies were among the most powerful. One day a powerful witch visited his castle, hoping for a place to spend the night. She came disguised as an old woman in the middle of the night. This mighty Lord turned away the ugly crone with scorn.
Angered by his lack of respect, the old woman reverted to her true form – a beautiful witch. To punish this Lord, she turned him and all his subjects into hideous creatures, doomed to live forever in the Castle. The witch told the Lord that if he should find a woman who would fall in love with him as a beast, the curse would be broken.
The Lord of Beasts, desperate to find a woman who would love him at first resorted to kidnapping girls. When they wouldn’t love him, he would eat them! No woman would ever love a creature as hideous as he. And so, the Lord of Beasts still lives to this day in the Crimrose Woods, stealing away young beautiful girls to be his bride. Girls – like you! Now go to sleep else the Crimrose Beast come take you for his bride!
The story had not been so scary when her mother told it. Her mother had gentle hands and a softer voice that made scare stories seem silly. But she was gone now. And with it, the feeling that everything would be alright.
A grey-stoned path snaked through the trees, lit by the full moon overhead. Bella pulled softly on the reins and Gracie came to a stop, turning her head to her master. The two knights rode forward until they were level with her.
“Something wrong, Lady Thorn?” Asked the fair-haired knight, Sir Dillon.
“No, I –” Bella paused, not sure how to vocalize her irrational fear. She was the Lady of the House. Would it be dignified to express fear over a child’s tale? Her two guards looked at her expectantly and she shrugged away her inhibitions. The two knights were her regular guards and she felt comfortable with them.
“Have you ever heard the story of Lord Crimrose?”
Dillon chuckled. “No need to fear, Lady Thorn. The tale of Lord of Beasts is exactly that – merely a tale used to frighten children.”
The older knight, Sir Raul, pursed his lips. At fifty years old he’d heard many stories and was surprised to discover how much truth some contained. Having fought in skirmishes against the soldiers of the Three Queens, he’d seen monsters first hand. And while he’d never seen such beasts in Crimrose Woods, strange events did occur in the dark forest. Travelers claimed to see giant wolves and walking statues from time to time. One traveling musician even claimed a tree had plucked his instrument and smashed it against the rocks. Sir Raul felt it would not do to further his Lady’s misgivings. After all it was his duty to protect Lady Thorn from danger. Telling her of such things would just needlessly spook her.
“My Lady, you need not fear. Sir Dillon and I are sworn to protect you from anything,” he declared.
“That’s right, Lady Thorn,” Sir Dillon exclaimed. “Watch.” Shouting a garbled war cry he drew his sword and urged his charger ahead of the trio, into the woods.
“Crimson the Beast, fight me if you dare! Are you a coward?” He roared his challenge. An owl hooted in response. “See, Lady Thorn, nothing to fear.”
“Sir Dillon, cease your folly and sheathe your weapon immediately!” Sir Raul reprimanded. While supernatural creatures could be the figment of imagination, thieves and bandits were very real threats. And while he was confident in his combat ability, it was still unwise to poke a sleeping bear.
Bella’s fear suddenly felt as silly as the young knight’s display. She hid a smile at the younger knight’s antics. Sir Raul was right to scold the younger knight of course. At the same time, she did feel a little better. With a soft word to Gracie she continued her journey into Crimrose Woods.
Chastised, Sir Dillon guided his horse to Bella’s side once more.
“I apologize, Lady Thorn. I did not mean to alarm you in any way,” he said searching her face anxiously.
“I appreciate your bravery, Sir Dillon,” Bella said. “Although in the future I don’t recommend issuing challenges to trees. I don’t deny your swordsmanship, but I do believe that mighty oak will have you beat nine out of ten times.”
Sir Dillon’s mouth hung open in surprise until he realized she was having a joke at his expense. Silently he thanked the night for concealing his flushed cheeks. He glared at Sir Raul, who snorted in an unknightly manner.
A peal of laughter sliced through the last of his embarrassment and he couldn’t help smiling as well. He would gladly make a fool of himself for a chance to prolong her laughter.
“Well put, Lady Thorn,” he said.
The stony path was wide enough to allow five horses to walk breast to breast. Bella rode in the center of the trio, flanked by Sir Raul on the left and Sir Dillon on the right. Sir Raul kept alert, one hand holding the reins and one hand on the hilt of his sword. He twitched with every snap of a branch or call of a wild animal. The younger knight carried on with less care, sneaking glances at his Lady.
Bella, for her part, pretended not to notice the looks her young companion was throwing her way. She was used to being gawked at. Her father had brought up marriage on several occasions. Often arranging dinners with various knights and minor lords. Bella gleefully made such occasions as awkward as she could, resulting in her potential suitors running in the opposite direction. Not that she was opposed to marriage. As the sole heir to House Thorn she had to find a consort eventually. But she hoped to delay that day for as long as possible. Frankly none of her suitors appealed to her. Most were much older than her, more interested in the entitlements that came with carrying the Thorn name rather than any love for her. Your stories have turned our daughter into a wolf, her father joked to her mother once. To which her mother replied with a wink, better a wolf than a sheep.
Sir Dillon cleared his throat. He fidgeted with his horse’s reins when his companions paid him no heed. With a sideways glance at Lady Thorn, he sat up straighter and cleared his throat again.
“Do not hide behind your lips, boy. If you have something to say, say it,” Sir Raul said cocking an eyebrow at the younger knight.
“If I may ask, Lady Thorn. What are we to do after we reach Cristol Capitol? What happens if our army cannot hold them at the mountain pass?”
Bella bit her lip. She hated thinking about that possibility – which spelled certain doom for her father. Nonetheless the knight was right to ask. As her subject his fate rested with her decisions. The enormity of that responsibility hit her and suddenly she felt lightheaded. Thousands looked up to her for orders now – not her mother or father. How could she possibly hope to lead all these people? She was a healer, not a great warrior like her father or an ambassador like her mother. Bella stole a shaky breath from the crisp air.
“The Royal Army will arrive to help my father. Together they will drive the Three Queens to whatever hole they crawled from,” she said with a lot more confidence than she felt. Sir Dillon and Sir Raul nodded in satisfaction at Bella’s prediction. He seeks reassurance as well, she thought.
The trio descended into the rhythmic clop of horseshoe on stone. Crimrose Woods held its breath at their passage. Bella pulled a hood over her head and wrapped her cloak closer around her shoulders. Moonlight struggled against the dark clouds that were slowly choking away the night sky. They would have to make a stop soon. Bella had hoped to arrive at Castle Thorn by sunrise. The only thing that stopped her from pushing on was her companions. While her body was sore from riding all day, she could only imagine the knights’ discomfort wearing all that armor.
Bella pulled on her reins at the meek plea. The two knights stopped as well, their confusion hidden by the shadows.
“Did you hear that?” her whisper sounded like a shout.
“Hear what, My Lady?” Sir Raul reached for his sword.
“I believe it was a cry for help.” Bella strained her ears. Had it been her imagination? It had sounded so clearly in her head – the voice of a hurt child that tore through her heart.
Bella pressed Gracie to the left.
“My Lady! It is unwise to stray from the path!” Sir Raul warned. She ignored his warning and kept riding. Sensing her urgency Gracie broke into a run, dodging trees and jumping over fallen logs. The cries grew louder and more desperate until finally they broke into a clearing illuminated by light from the moon. In the very center a baby wolf brayed at the three men who surrounded it. They laughed each time he barked in terror.
“Stop that!” Bella snapped with such intensity the three men jumped and tumbled over themselves. After a moment of confusion, the men turned and brandished their daggers at her. Seeing it was only a woman, evil grins broke over their grimy faces.
“Hello, girlie,” one of them said. “How do you like to be pricked?” This one had black leather armor studded with steel.
His companions sniggered as he swaggered towards Bella, stopping only when she drew her sword. She twirled the weapon and pointed it at the rogue. The rogue’s eyes widened at her unexpected skill. While Bella normally preferred a diplomatic approach the pup’s cries boiled her blood, bringing out the warrior side she had inherited from her father.
“Leave now, or I will have you all arrested!” Anger lent her the forceful authority her father commanded.
The bandits hesitated – but only briefly. Arrogance got the best of the lead rogue who swaggered towards the woman on the horse. He had robbed dozens of armed men. This pesky girl stood knee high to a gnat and likely weighed half as much. Who was she to order him around?
“Ho, this one’s got spunk to her. I like that,” the leader said. “Why don’t you put that down, sweetheart? Before someone gets hurt.”
Gracie trotted the distance between the arrogant rogue. Bella followed with a swing of her sword, the flat side of the weapon struck the man’s face. True to his word the rogue let out a pitiful groan and collapsed.
“Lady Thorn!” Sir Dillon thundered into the clearing with his sword drawn. At the sight of a fully armored knight the remaining bandits threw down their weapons and fled. Sir Raul rode in seconds later, circling the clearing twice before coming to a stop.
Bella swung off her horse and approached the pup in wonder. He shied away from her, hiding his eyes behind spotted paws. Bella realized she was still carrying the sword and shoved it back into the scabbard. She extended a hand towards the frightened creature. Slowly the pup lowered his paws and extended a quivering snout towards her fingers. Satisfied with her scent, he jumped into her arms. Bella wrapped the baby in her cloak and stroked his head. The tip of his right ear was missing, like something bit it off. Bella held the pup closer to her chest.
“Warm,” he murmured in content.
“You can speak!” she exclaimed.
The baby wolf looked up with shiny eyes. “Of course I can speak! Can you help me find my mummy?”
“I – why yes,” Bella said still in a daze. “What’s your name?”
“Rip!” he growled proudly. “My mummy says I will be a great warrior when I grow older!”
“You are certainly very frightening, Rip,” she tickled the pup who barked with pleasure.
Sir Dillon’s boots crunched against the dirt as he walked towards Bella. He made it halfway before he froze, eyes transfixed on something behind Bella. Sir Raul had the same expression of terror written on his features. A chill ran down Bella’s spine. She had never seen the veteran knight look that way. Knees shaking, she turned around and found herself face to face with the largest wolf glaring down at her.