When the light cleared Isabel found herself standing on a frozen lake in a winter landscape. Her breath came out in puffs as she glanced around and saw her mother already moving towards a rickety old house. The foundation was red brick and the shingles were grey with red wooden shutters standing open on either side of the many windows. The wraparound porch was also painted red and creaked when Leticia stepped onto it and knocked on the large wooden door with the elaborate gold handle.
In the snow was a fresh set of footprints and impressions from the largest hooves Isabel had ever seen leading off into the meadow towards the distant forest.
“They must have some very large horses here,” she surmised.
“What was that?” Leticia stepped off the porch.
“These hoof prints are enormous!” Isabel pointed to the snow. “Do they raise Clydesdales here or something?”
Leticia blanched and shook her head. “Oh no, this is bad! These aren’t from horses, they’re called Geetos, large stubborn beasts used by ogres to hunt.”
Isabel’s heart thudded in her chest as she looked back towards the forest before meeting her mother’s gaze. Ogres now, and neither had to be told whom the ogres were hunting. The pair charged into the meadow, trudging through hip deep snow as they entered the woods beyond. All was silent as a light breeze teased the treetops, shaking snowflakes from the branches to the ground below.
“I hope we’re not too late,” Isabel whispered, her heart thumping in her breast.
She was answered with a blood-curdling scream, coming from a nearby bluff. They trudged through the forest toward the sound and Isabel wondered at how fast her mother moved ahead of her. She went to call out but slipped and wound up with a mouthful of snow instead. Gasping, Isabel got to her knees and found herself staring down the sharp point of a long sword. She raised her eyes and found a pair of the bluest eyes she had ever seen staring back at her. The figure moved and Isabel realized a large man wearing brown and white camouflage stood before her. She glanced down the path behind him but her mother was long gone. She didn’t dare yell but maybe if she got her captor talking, the sound would draw her mother’s attention.
“Careful, dude, my mother is a Mirror Mage and if you don’t put that sword down she’ll turn you into a frog!”
He threw back his head and laughed, causing the cover to fall from his handsome face.
“Mirror Mages don’t do that.” He lowered his sword. “You say you are the daughter of a Mirror Mage?”
“I lost her in the snow. We were trying to rescue...” Isabel nodded then stopped speaking, wondering if she’d said too much.
“Fear not, I am Alaric, prince and heir to the kingdom of Lothiari. We are here to rescue the princess of Rune as well.” Alaric reached out to help Isabel to her feet.
“I’m Isabel, Isabel Kendra.”
A shadow briefly crossed Alaric’s face. “Kendra, as in the Duke of Kendra?”
“He’s my father.”
Another scream caught their attention and they clambered toward the sound. The prince stopped short and Isabel crashed into the back of him. Just ahead of them Leticia crouched beside another figure camouflaged in brown and white garb. They turned as Isabel and Alaric crouched next to them.
Leticia nodded to the prince and said, “I am the Mage of the Sunrise. It looks like you’ve met my daughter, Isabel.”
“Indeed.” Alaric replied in a tone that gave Isabel a warm flutter in her stomach. “This is Lennox, my Man at Arms.”
A pair of grey eyes roamed Isabel’s form curiously before the man nodded to the women and turned his attention away again.
“She is here, highness, but we dunna have much time.” Lennox told Alaric.
Peering through the brush, Isabel gasped. Just above them on the rocks clung a terrified young woman clad in a blue ski vest, white blouse, tight denim jeans and black boots. Her flaming red hair was tied back in a ponytail.
“Get away! Leave me alone!” she screamed.
Isabel saw several enormous shaggy gray and black goats climbing within reach of their prey and she shuddered. Only they weren’t goats because their heads were that of fearsome looking horses. Their black eyes were wild and their frothing mouths displayed a wide set of bright fangs as they laughed. What chilled Isabel most was how the creatures didn’t whinny like horses or bleat like goats. They actually laughed, horridly guttural, menacing human laughter of men with ill intent in their hearts.
“My God, they’re huge!” She whispered. “Can’t we do something?”
The men looked at Isabel and exchanged glances before Alaric asked, “Are you not frightened?”
“Of course I am, are you crazy? But that girl needs our help!”
The prince smiled suddenly and Isabel felt her heart flip. “That she does, the Geetos are only holding her at bay until their ogre masters come to claim her.”
Isabel shivered again and Leticia stood up, staring at a tree limb adorned with long icicles. “I have an idea.”
Alaric followed her gaze and nodded. “Be sure your aim is true. While they are not quick witted the Geeto will be on us in a flash once they know we are here.”
Determination furrowing her brow, Leticia stared at the limb for a moment. Slowly she raised her arm and two fingers. Suddenly one of the icicles broke off and zipped towards the head of the Geeto nearest the girl on the rocks. The beast stiffened and fell over the far side of the rocks causing one creature to laugh at his clumsiness. Another Geeto climbed higher to investigate as Leticia loosed another icicle, which sunk into his eye. Howling, the beast fell heavily down the bluff and when the last stopped laughing and snarled in her direction, Leticia sunk a third icicle into his brain.
“Excellent shot, Glorious One!” Lennox congratulated her as he stood.
“Mom, that was incredible!” Isabel exclaimed as she got to her feet. “How’d you do it?”
Leticia smiled. “You’ll learn soon enough.”
Prince Alaric moved to the foot of the bluff and reached up to the redhead as she climbed down, being careful not to touch the monsters coating the rocks with their blood. “Come with us, Nancy Harrington, tis not safe to tarry here.”
Isabel exchanged glances with her mother and rolled her eyes, giggling to herself. Talk about cornball!
“H-how did you know my name?” Nancy took his hand and leapt to the ground.
“Tis a long story,” Lennox replied, “one we dunna have time for, we need to get back to the house.”
“Why? Are there more of those things?” Nancy squeaked, her green eyes became saucers.
“Lots more and they’ll be bringing lots of nasty ogres with them when they get here.” He said over his shoulder as he crashed through the brush. “The last thing we want is hand to hand combat with those beasties!”
They were nearly frozen and the sun sat low in the horizon when they finally reached the house. From deep in the woods came a series of bone-chilling howls.
“What was that?” Isabel asked, her heart in her throat.
“Ogres.” Leticia answered with a frown.
“Is there anyone home besides you, Nancy?” Alaric asked.
As if in answer, the front door flung open and a plump, dark skinned woman about Leticia’s age flew onto the porch in green satin robes with silver streaks in her hair. She frowned as she watched the group approach and pulled Nancy to her.
“Oh Nancy, where were you? We were so worried!”
Eyeing the others, she shooed Nancy through the door saying, “Inside, quickly!”
“Zenaida, these people just saved me from the most horrible looking things you ever saw!”
The older woman simply nodded, looking distracted. The howling came closer prompting Zenaida to shout in a language Isabel couldn’t identify. Several people appeared and started closing up the house. Leticia approached Zenaida and spoke to her in the same strange language. Isabel wondered if Zenaida was from Baelcrest as well. She turned to the prince, who stood beside her, but when he focused his brilliant gaze on her she suddenly found her brain stopped working and she’d lost the power of speech. C’mon songana, get it together! Shaking her head in annoyance, Isabel decided to ask Lennox instead.
“She is of the Hunekin,” Lennox nodded, “a woodland people, who live in the treetops of the jungles in the farthest reaches of Baelcrest. They are the guardians of the legendary Book of Sen.”
Zenaida placed her palms together and bowed with a smile. “Correct, I am the Keeper of the Book of Sen.”
Returning her bow, Prince Alaric took her hands in his and kissed both palms before bringing them together again. “As guardian to both the great book and the heir to the throne of Rune, you must have your hands full.”
Zenaida gave a single slow nod, the smile not leaving her face. “Tis my purpose in this life.”
“Wait, heir to the throne of what?” Nancy said, watching the exchange. “Zenaida, what’s he talking about? Where’d you come from anyway?”
A low growling sound outside the door interrupted them and Zenaida started barking orders again. The hair on the back of Isabel’s neck stood up and she steadied herself against a sudden wave of nausea. She saw Lennox and Prince Alaric draw their swords and realized her mother was gone. She raced towards the doorway leading further into the house and bumped into Leticia who had returned with an odd looking dark skinned boy. A pair of pointy ears stuck out from his shaggy white hair and he looked up at Isabel curiously with unblinking silver eyes before rushing to Zenaida. The Keeper bent down and listened as he whispered in her ear, then nodded and shooed him out again.
“Mom, where have you been?” Isabel asked. She hated being so frightened. It made her feel helpless, like the five year old who watched her whole world fall apart.
“Arranging our escape.” Leticia squeezed her hand. “No te preocupes, nena, we’ll be alright.”
“Everyone to the cellar!” Zenaida commanded as unearthly howling reverberated outside accompanied by a series of scratching and pounding noises.
Nobody had to be told twice. Following Zenaida’s lead, they headed down an impossibly long wooden staircase that groaned under their weight and entered a doorway. Then down an even longer staircase and through a maze of doors and hallways. They were moving so fast that Isabel didn’t get a chance to fully assess her whereabouts. She then followed the group down a long stone staircase and crossed another threshold. She felt a strange warmth flow through her and the room suddenly brightened, causing her to stop. The doors and staircase she had just come through were gone and Isabel found herself in a small room with beams just inches from the top of her head. The room was lit by incandescent mushrooms and filled with furniture that looked to be carved from the very stone of the floor and walls. A little old man sat in one chair at the far end of a long table in the center of the room. His crystal eyes shone beneath a pair of bushy eyebrows and above a large bulbous nose. He rested his beefy hands upon his massive belly draped by a long, impossibly white beard. His golden robes shimmered in the torchlight when he rose and gestured for his guests to take their seats at the table. Nancy’s household had disappeared through another doorway leaving her, Isabel, Leticia, Lennox, Prince Alaric and Zenaida in the room.
“Do we have time for this?” Isabel whispered to her mother as they took their seats.
“Plenty of time, my dear,” the little man rumbled gaily. “You are quite safe now.”
Isabel nodded her thanks and noticed she and Nancy were the only ones still on edge. A stone door slid open and a plump little woman in green, with grey hair in two long braids down her back, entered the room carrying a stone tray from which she placed little stone cups filled with an amber liquid on the table before them. Another, younger woman, her raven hair styled in the same fashion and wearing a deep blue gown, followed her with a tray. She was carrying small loaves of warm bread, large round grapes that sparkled like amethysts, and rounds of cheese.
“Can someone please tell me what’s going on?” Nancy wailed.
Isabel’s heart went out to the poor girl who looked pale and drained. She was still reeling from her own ordeal and wondered if she looked as devastated by it all as Nancy did. Both girls were riveted as Zenaida spoke.
“Nancy, you know that your parents loved you very much,” she began and continued only after the girl nodded.
“You should also know that the Harringtons were not your birth parents. You were born Princess Valeska of the Kingdom of Rune. The world was in total chaos when you were a babe, and when that witch Phaedra sent her forces to invade the kingdom after the fall of Kendra I was instructed to take you into the other realm. I was met by Mirror Mages who secured us with the Harrington family.”
The older woman sat beside Nancy, who had grown paler still, and placed a large wrinkled hand over her small dainty one. “Child, I should have told you about this long ago, especially when the Harringtons were murdered…”
Nancy’s head snapped up and her brow furrowed. “Murdered? My parents died in a car accident!”
Zenaida continued to grip her hand and locked her steel blue eyes onto Nancy’s green ones. “Your parents’ car dropped off a cliff, on a road your father had driven countless times.”
Nancy yanked her hand away, her eyes rimmed with tears and her cheeks flushed. Her soft Southern drawl became more noticeable as she grew angry. “They were pushed off by a mudslide, you know that!”
Zenaida placed her hands onto her own lap but her gaze never wavered. “It had not rained in weeks, girl! Did you not think it strange for a mudslide to occur during the dry season?” Zenaida’s eyes flashed. “The same forces that sent those ogres for you now sent gremlins to kill the Harringtons!”
Isabel frowned. She was confused enough by all of this but she couldn’t imagine how a kid just out of high school, who had recently lost her parents, would feel having the rest of her world yanked out from under her. Knowing your loved ones died in an accident was one thing but murder was entirely different. It was a delicate situation that Nancy needed to adjust to quickly. The last thing any of them needed was for the girl to have a nervous breakdown.
“Zenaida, isn’t there a more gentle way to do this?” Leticia asked, echoing her daughter’s thoughts, “The girl has been through enough.”
Nancy leapt to her feet and glared at her guardian. “You snatch me from my lifelong home, and everyone and everything I’ve ever known, without so much as a chance to mourn my parents and say goodbye! You wouldn’t even let me attend the funeral, and now you’re spinning yarns about fantasy creatures?”
Zenaida was on her feet now and squared off with the girl. “King Torquil’s horde was on your trail! We had to leave when we did or they would have found you.”
“Well you did one hell of a job because they did find me!” Nancy shrieked. “Now I have no home, no family, and I’m hiding with strangers in some filthy godforsaken hole in the ground!”
Zenaida went pale and she shook silently as the air seemed to seep from the room. Isabel was by Nancy’s side in an instant, placing her hands on the seething girl’s trembling shoulders.
“Alright, that’s enough.” She said softly, regarding them both. “This has been one hell of a day and there is a lot to take in. Let’s sit down and take a breath.”
Zenaida and Nancy regarded each other for a moment before silently returning to their seats. They both drank deep from their stone cups. Afterwards, Nancy took a deep shuddering breath, wiped away the single tear that had rolled down her cheek, and squeezed her old guardian’s hand. Zenaida placed a hand on the girl’s and smiled though still visibly shaken by her words. Prince Alaric picked up the story where Zenaida had left off.
“While your parents and most of your family had perished fighting for the kingdom, you still have a cousin. Princess Nerissa has been living in exile these 20 years, here in the Dwarf Kingdom of Abiloth, as a guest of King Jarek.”
The little old man who had been sitting quietly at the head of the table nodded and gave Nancy a wink when the prince gestured towards him.
Nancy gaped at him, at all she had learned in such a short amount of time. She was a Texan, born and raised on Harrington Ranch by an elegant socialite and a man who was a force to be reckoned with. Nancy never searched for toadstool rings hoping to find fairies. She had never wished upon a star in her life and she most definitely did not pretend to be a princess and dream of prince charming. It’s not that Nancy didn’t believe in magic, she just never thought about it. Now she found herself princess and heir to the throne of some kingdom or other. Her nanny turned out to be some sort of witch and both sets of parents, it seemed, had been murdered by goblins and gremlins. It was all so unbelievable!
“So what happens now?” she asked, suddenly feeling very tired.
“Our enemy grows careless in their desperation.” King Jarek replied. “We must get you both to the Crystal Palace and summon the Alliance.”