Written By Peter Mackie
Once Upon A Time…
Hannah, Princess and Regent of the Realm of Heartland, was snoring.
Softly enough, but snoring she was, in a rich, four-poster bed with dark red curtains. Light had just begun to creep in through the opened window, and as it lit the curtains, it filled the bed with an eerie red glow. Hannah opened her eyes, and then saw the small teddy bear that she’d always had hanging from a hook from the ceiling. She smiled at it. He was known to the castle as Hanging Ted, ever since, as a little girl, Hannah had flown into a tantrum which had resulted in the unfortunate fuzzy stuffed creature hanging in an exceedingly undignified manner from the ceiling of her chambers.
Hannah shook off her sleep and her rich covers.
A basin of water, warm towels, and a fresh set of clothes had been set out for her. She made use of all three, and then glanced in the mirror as she rapidly tied her hair behind her. Many had been the occasion when visiting nobles had mistaken her for a serving girl – her clothes weren’t rich, rather simple and functional. But, without a doubt, she was beautiful – hair like spun gold, tanned skin that practically glowed, and eyes of green that sparkled with mischief. That’s what other people told her, anyway. Hannah finished her hair, and then headed out of her expansive bedroom, into the hallways of the Palace. It was an amazing structure, built from the finest materials. Its white marble, rich tapestries, and statues of kings gone by were admired in songs and by poets in many a song. Hannah had lived there for her whole life, usually getting into all kinds of trouble. Of course, now she’d grown up, and acting the silly little girl wasn’t exactly going to cut it, now that her parents, the King and Queen, had left on a ship for a meeting of state in a faraway land. They kept in touch through letters, and, confident in their daughter’s abilities, had given her powers to act in their place. Hannah knew it was an incredible honour, and did her very best to maintain Heartland to their standard.
Of course, she had some help.
A grinning jester leaned against the foot of the stairs, waiting for her.
Tall, his absurd hat tilted at a perky angle, and his colourful outfit were the perfect disguise for Lord Peter Damien, her cousin and closest advisor. His parents had died at an early age, victims of ransom by foreign mercenaries. Despite this, he remained sunny and optimistic, clever and exceptionally suited towards keeping the court in line. He was respected and acknowledged, and had almost been placed as Prince Regent instead of Hannah. Oftentimes, she wished that he had, but he’d remained firmly convinced that she was the best woman for the job and had taken on the guise of court jester, a part in which he excelled.
“Good morning,” he said with a sweeping bow and grin.
“Are they here yet?” Hannah asked.
“Just arrived. They’re being served breakfast, and await your dignified presence.”
Hannah looked down at herself. “Am I dignified enough, jester? Honestly?”
“Of course. Your beauty will knock them all senseless and the need for negotiation will be easily concluded. We simply send them home in boxes and tell them that such a flower as the Princess of Heartland is not to be disturbed by marriage proposals.”
The princess rolled her eyes. “If only it were that simple.”
“Well, I could have Jacob arrange it…”
“I was joking,” Hannah told him.
“That’s my job,” Peter reminded her with a cocky grin.
“Then why are you so terrible at it?”
The jester simply laughed and gestured for her to continue down the stairs.
Hannah did as he said, and forced down the nerves that always threatened her composure.
Hannah was perfectly happy with her independence. The last thing she wanted was to be tied up to a boring noble with his nose in the air and his people starving at his feet. This wasn’t exactly something that her parents had mentioned to her, but she’d quickly realised that her parents had been deflecting such offers for years. Now, of course, that they were gone, surrounding kingdoms would jump at the chance to try and ally themselves to such a prosperous and magical realm such as Heartland.
As she walked down the stairs, she saw the Captain of the Guard, Jacob, waiting for her.
He was Peter’s step-brother, an interesting choice for the King and Queen for the man heading the security of the Kingdom. As a little girl, Hannah had been extremely interested in him – he was only a year older, extremely good-looking and certainly in her league. Almost three years ago, Jacob had left for the outer provinces of Heartland, putting down raiders and pirates of all kinds, and it’d changed and hardened him into a man before his time. He was quiet, serious and, for the most part, utterly dedicated to the Guard and his work. The only relics from the outer realms was a long, thin scar that ran from his temple, over his jaw, and to his neck, and a pronounced dislike for foreigners.
Like his half-brother, he was tall, but muscular and lean, every line of his body hard and strong.
He was also a powerful Practitioner – magic users were not uncommon in Heartland, but few were of Jacob’s calibre. His powers were purely physical, geared towards immense strength and durability. Hannah hadn’t seen him in action but she’d heard tell of his amazing fighting ability.
He bowed. “Your Highness.”
“Jacob. I trust that our guests are well?”
“Well enough as could be expected.”
“Have they proved eager for negotiation?”
“Not as yet,” he answered.
Hannah breathed a sigh of relief.
They continued down the stairs. They reached a passageway, turned to the right, and then before long found themselves standing in the Grand Hall. It was aptly named – pillars as thick as three men held up a soaring ceiling, carved with astonishing ability in the shapes of nature. The pillars towards the front of the Hall were carved in the likeness of Queens and Kings of old. In the centre of the Hall, there sat the ambassadors, eating with relish and laughing.
Hannah watched them for a moment, interested.
These weren’t foppish, refined men from the other Realms – rather, they were rough-cut, powerful men that made her think of farmers or perhaps miners. Their garb was unique, to say in the least – tartan, braided beards, sweeping runes on their faces and hands. There were at least ten of them, and beside them, ladies from the same realm. They were beautiful creatures, wrapped in tartan, lacking the paintings that their male counterparts wore. Rich jewellery didn’t seem to appeal to them – they favoured simplistic charms that didn’t detract attention from their looks. They glowed slightly, and Hannah could feel their magic, their power. Practitioners, then.
She turned to look at Jacob, who nodded and then spoke in a firm voice.
“The Princess Regent of Heartland.”
The Outlanders looked up, and got to their feet, bowing. As they stood, Hannah was surprised and amused to see that they wore skirt-like tartan around their waists. She tried to recall the name from her studies, and then finally remembered them. Kilts. She inclined her head in return to their courtesy.
“Thank you, my lords and ladies. Please, be seated.”
They sat back down, and she strode to the table, sitting down among them. Hannah could see the surprise and astonishment in their eyes. Monarchs, particularly ones of such important realms such as Heartland, didn’t show such familiarity to ambassadors. Hannah reached for a goblet of freshly squeezed orange juice, and then smiled at them, quickly establishing a friendly atmosphere with them.
“Who may I address as chief?” Hannah asked.
“I, your Highness.” The voice was surprisingly youthful.
The speaker couldn’t have been any older than Jacob – eighteen or nineteen summers at most. He was the only man who was lacking face paint, and he spoke with a light accent that told her he was skilled in the arts of speech and languages. He lacked a beard, also, but he possessed the same tanned skin as the others, and long, neat hair was tied behind his back. Keen grey eyes met hers.
“And how may I address you?”
“Campbell,” he told her.
She smiled at him. “If I may, can we get right to the point of your visit?”
“Of course,” the young lord said. “I’m sure that you know us as Outlanders. We come from the North and many of the clans have been extremely aggressive, even enough to bypass your border defences to raid. The people you see before you are the Clanmeet, and we wish to set in motion a peace treaty that will hopefully result in harmony between our nations.”
His speech was excellent, well-delivered and right to the point. Hannah realised that he was probably
just as educated as she was, if not more. She could leave most of the negotiations to her advisors. No marriage offers. Extremely straightforward and simple. Sipping her orange juice, she sat back in her chair and nodded, exchanging polite conversation with them about their travels.
Before long, she rose, and they all rose with her.
One of the women, a lovely woman with dark eyes, spoke.
“As Outlanders, we are rarely exposed to such kindness and hospitality, your Highness. On behalf of the Clanmeet, I would like to thank you. We hope that his may be the beginning of a long and fruitful friendship.” She bowed, and the others followed her example.
Hannah turned to Jacob. “Could you see to it that the Clanmeet are housed in the Palace?”
Campbell cut in. “That won’t be necessary, your Highness. We’d hate to intrude in any case, particularly as your people don’t trust us. We’d much prefer to sleep in the open air, if it’s all the same to you. We’re not accustomed to fine palaces and such kindness.”
Hannah nodded. “As you wish. I’m sure I’ll see you soon.”
Campbell inclined his head, and the Outlanders followed his example, before striding out of the Grand Hall. Jacob and Peter joined her as the servants arrived to clear up the remains of the breakfast and the table and chairs. Hannah looked to Peter, who offered her a sly wink and a grin.
“Nicely done. I think that strapping young Lord Campbell may have taken to you.”
“At least they weren’t looking for alliance via political marriage,” Hannah said.
Jacob looked down the hall, his face expressionless.
“What do you think?” Hannah asked him.
“I don’t like it,” the Captain said. “Seems too much like a trap.”
“They came here to talk peace,” Peter told him, rolling his eyes.
“If that’s the case, then why did they bring four Practitioners with them?”
“They’re part of the Clanmeet, aren’t they?” Hannah asked.
“Men are clan leaders, so I doubt it.” Jacob glanced at her. “I’ll have the Guard doubled. They may take it as an affront but they haven’t exactly proved themselves trustworthy. I’d also ask you to trust my judgement when it comes to Outlanders. I’ve seen more than most.”
She nodded, grateful for his input. “I think you’re being paranoid, but so be it.”
Peter rolled his eyes. “Well, now that my dear brother has had his input, I’ll add my own. It would be the height of their visit if we were to organise a ball or perhaps a tournament for our guests.”
“Are you out of your mind?” Jacob growled.
“Of course, but you’re missing the point.”
“I think Peter may be right,” Hannah said, interrupting them both. “Jacob, you’ve fought against them before but that does not make all of them our enemies. They are worthy of our respect, and I’ll charge you to make sure that you don’t forget that. See to it that the Guard is doubled, if you must, but a ball would be the best way to make them feel welcome.”
She turned to Peter. “How soon could you organise it?”
“It can happen tonight. And I’ll have our own ambassadors take care of the politics. In the meanwhile, I suggest that the Princess organise herself for a dance tonight, perhaps with Lord Campbell.”
Hannah looked at him, horrified. “I’m not dancing!”
“A ball without the princess dancing? A most irregular and impolite gesture.”
“You…” Hannah was lost for words. “I…”
Jacob kindly obliged her.
“You’re a fool if you think that this will end well.”
“It’ll go fine, dear brother,” Peter assured him with a grin, slapping him on the shoulder. “I’ll iron out the details. Go and ready your Guard for a war, if need be, but I assure you that you won’t find one waiting inside our own gates. They’re only here with a treaty. Not with an army.”
Peter bounded up the stairs that led to the passages, and vanished.
Hannah turned to Jacob, who glared after his half-brother.
“There need not be a ball, Highness.”
“Call me Hannah,” she told him, and shook her head. “No, he’s right. It’d be an affront to refuse them my presence. I don’t know how my parents can stand it, being right in the thick of politics every day of their lives. Simply standing there makes people feel better.”
He bowed. “I’ll take my leave.”
The Captain halted.
“Why do you hate them so much?”
“They invaded Heartland.”
“That’s not the reason, though. Our neighbours have all warred with us at different times. You don’t hate all of them, not as much as the Outlanders. What happened? What did they do to you?”
A humourless half-smile touched his face. His scarred face. “Your Highness.”
He inclined his head and took his leave, leaving her standing there alone.
She watched him walk away, and then shook her head to herself. It looked like a story that she would have to follow up on another time. For now, she’d content herself with keeping her eyes on them. Hannah smiled to herself. Not in the conventional way, though. She’d had enough of convention for a while now. Looking down at her hands, Hannah felt the tingle of magic spark in her blood. No-one had any idea that their Princess was a Practitioner herself, but she’d kept it quiet. She’d read about magic for years before she’d realised that she was magical herself. From there, more reading and experimentation had been the key to learning to control her powers.
She spun in a full circle. Once, twice, three times…
And then she felt her flesh change, transform…
Into a pure gold, sleek, powerful bird of prey.
Hannah was flying. It was incredible – the wind racing past her, ruffling her feathers, as she streaked through the sky, swinging through the sweeping towers of the Palace before tucking in her wings and streaking down towards the courtyard, where the Outlanders had set up camp. Their pavilions were roughly spun, but nonetheless grand, and as Hannah landed on a battlement, she used the razor-sharp eyes of her hawk form to watch them. She recognised the leader, Campbell, crouching down beside a brazier that had been provided by the Guard. He warmed his hands. He wore a sleeveless tunic, which bared his powerful arms, tanned from long, hard hours in the watery Northern sun.
Another of the clan chiefs appeared behind him.
They spoke, but Hannah couldn’t hear what they were saying – she was too far away – but she was curious and took wing again, soaring down to the courtyard itself and landing as inconspicuously as possible on the top of one of the pavilions. Now, she could hear them properly. Hannah cocked her head, and wondered silently to herself why she always transformed into animals the colour of gold. She had a theory that it had something to do with her hair…
“They’ve invited us to a ball, Cam. You heard about that?” the older Outlander said in a harsh accent.
“I did,” Campbell said. “MacKill and the others are betting on whether or not I attend.”
Campbell grinned at that. “Not sure. They’ll probably try and tie me up to stop me going, or just haul me into the Palace like a sack of potatoes. Maybe both… I’d best watch my step, else they’ll tear me in half.” He laughed, and the Outlander chief joined in with a chuckle. “Are you going?”
“Not I. Someone has to watch the camp.”
“That, and you can’t dance.”
The chief chuckled. “What are the chances of a jig in Heartland?”
Hannah decided then and there that there would be jigs at the ball. Campbell glanced up at her, and his eyes widened as he caught sight of her. Hannah almost opened her mouth to speak when she realised that she was a hawk, not human. Campbell stood up slowly.
“Is that hawk gold?” he muttered to his companion.
“Aye,” the other man said in wonder.
Hannah, realising that she’d stayed for far too long, suddenly turned, swept the wind under her wings and soared into the air. She tried to savour the wonderful feeling of flight, but her thoughts were swirling so fast through her mind that she could barely keep her mind on where she was going.
Hannah found a familiar balcony, and then dived, rolling thrice in the air.
She flew through the curtains that surrounded her bed and landed as a human. She laid there for a moment, trying to get her thoughts in order. What was she going to do tonight? Would she really dance of all things? And why was she so restlessly curious about this Outlander, Campbell? What was it about him that interested her so much? Hannah rose from her bed, and then walked to the mirror. She had a cupboard full of dresses and gowns, as befitted any princess, but she had no idea what to wear. The thought itself made her stop short. Since when did she care about clothing, of all things? She was perfectly happy in her rough, durable clothes that were probably more worthy of a scullery maid than a reigning regent of the realm. The ball was merely hours away…
The very thought of it should’ve terrified her.
Then why was she so excited?!
There was a knock at the door, and Hannah muttered a ‘come in’.
A garishly dressed jester poked his head in the door, and beheld her with an astonished gaze.
The princess glared at him. “Go on. Tell me the truth.”
“You’re gorgeous,” Peter told her.
She heard the seriousness in his voice and raised an eyebrow.
“Are you serious?”
“Perfectly.” He bowed. “I believe it’s my duty to escort you to the Grand Hall.”
Hannah stood up and looked in the mirror one last time. She’d chosen a gown of red silk, with gold trimmings and long sleeves. Her crown of office was settled over her brow, sparkling with rubies, which matched her gown. She frowned at her reflection, and then turned, following her cousin out towards the Grand Hall. It wasn’t hard to hear the music and chatter of nobles as they danced.
“What’s it like out there?”
“There’s people,” Peter said. “You’ll be fine.”
She gritted her teeth. “I can do this.”
“Well, I can’t. I’m too tall for that gown,” he quipped.
Hannah laughed, despite her nerves. “Shut up.”
He took her head gently in his hands, and looked into her eyes.
“Hannah, you are the most beautiful sight that any mortal man has ever laid his eyes on. I promise you this, if nothing else. Chase away your doubts and fears. You can do this.”
She felt her mind clear as new resolve stole into it.
The princess smiled at him. “Thanks.”
Hannah glided into the Grand Hall, and saw a vast sea of people populating it. Men and women, lords and ladies, all gilded in their finest dresses and garbs. And, waiting at the foot of the stairs, was the strapping young Outlander lord, Campbell. Hannah’s arrival created a spontaneous explosion of applause, but she only had eyes for him. Campbell was clad in kilt, sporran, garters, a silver-buckled belt, a largish knife hanging from it. His tunic was sleeved, neat and simplistic, but sported silver fastenings. His skin fairly glowed in the candlelight, and he bowed as she descended the stairs.
“May I have the pleasure of a dance?”
Hannah smiled at him. “Certainly.”
Relief touched his eyes, and he took her hand gently. The music picked up, and in a moment she was spinning around the marble floor with him. Campbell was as agile as he was gentle – his feet always seemed to know where to go next, even if the dance was unfamiliar to him. Thankfully, she’d been dancing ever since she had been a little girl. As the Outlander spun her around, he shook his head in astonishment and spoke softly and yet firmly, with that soft accent of his.
“How has Heartland managed to keep you a secret for so long, Highness?”
Hannah felt her insides glow at the compliment. “Call me Hannah.”
“As you wish.” Campbell spun on his heel, moving like a dancing master.
“Tell me about yourself,” Hannah said, before she could stop herself.
“I’m the leader of the Campbell clan in the Outlands. I’m the youngest of five, and probably the last person you’d expect my grandfather to choose as his successor as clan leader.” He grinned at the memory. “In any case, I was bundled off into the world of men at seven years old. Since then... I’ve had my hands full trying to keep the Clanmeet from executing a sizeable portion of my clan.”
“Clan Campbell were the forefront of the raiders on your borders,” the Outlander told her. “I was forced to fight, to give my cousins time to retreat. I believe that the Captain of the Guard was there.”
Hannah turned, and caught sight of Jacob watching the entire ball with a hawk-like gaze.
“Is that where he got that scar?”
“I should think so.” Campbell bowed to her as the dance finished.
“I haven’t heard that story before. Not from him, anyway.”
“And if you are to,” a voice said firmly in her ear, “then you’ll hear it from the right source.”
Hannah flinched at the sudden surprise, and as the next song began, a lively dance, Jacob spun her into it with gusto that she hadn’t expected from him. The sheer surprise of it caught her by surprise, but she wasn’t going to argue. Campbell was suddenly lost in a sea of new dancers, and Hannah had to focus on the Captain of the Guard to keep in time with everyone else.
“Where did you spring from?” she asked.
“About.” He smirked. “Your relentless curiosity will be the end of you, Princess.”
“Have you been drinking?” Hannah asked incredulously. “Why are you so suddenly…”
He raised an eyebrow. “What? Reckless? Cheerful?”
“Reckless is probably nearer to the mark.”
“It’s my story, and like I said, you’re best hearing it from me.”
“Then pray do tell,” Hannah said.
“We were running patrols over the borders.” The suddenness of his beginning caught Hannah off-guard. “It’s standard practice, but we’d made sure to stiffen them as much as possible, particularly as we were practically at war with the Campbell clan. I headed one of the patrols – this is before your father appointed me as Captain, remember. They appeared like wraiths out of the heather and half of our patrol was in shreds before we knew it. You’ve seen Outlanders – they dress like raving lunatics and they fight twice as much so.”
“They didn’t hurt you, though. Your powers…”
“Hadn’t fully matured. I was still vulnerable. I was strong enough, certainly, but I wasn’t quite hard enough to stop a sword to the gut. Then your strapping young clan leader over there appeared, screaming bloody murder to any man who didn’t retreat in the next two minutes. Didn’t occur to any of us that he was talking to his own people and not ours.” Jacob smiled again, but there was no humour in it. “I realised that he was the leader and made him a priority. Again, in the thick of a fight, I didn’t have time to figure whether or not he was a Practitioner or not.”
“Campbell’s a Practitioner?”
“And an exceptionally powerful one, I might add.”
“We fought. I was stronger than him, but he was a tricky bugger – blinded me with a handful of flames to the face, and then made his dirk glow red-hot before carving a nice line in the side of my head. The men saw what’d happened, and within seconds Campbell had the heather blazing, forcing us and his own men to retreat. Altercation over. Three years of attacks like that – out of nowhere – and finally the Clanmeet did something about it and disciplined the raiders.”
Hannah digested the story and looked at him with amazement. “You know, I think that’s the most that I’ve ever seen you talk before. Why are you so quiet all the time?”
“It terrifies people. It’s useful.”
“As Princess Regent, I demand that you talk more often.”
He smirked at that. “You demand?”
“It’s an order, Captain.”
“We’ll see, your Highness…”
The dance ended.
And once more Hannah found herself in the arms of Campbell.
“You move fast,” she said with a grin.
“You seem especially pleased tonight, your High… Hannah.”
“I haven’t danced in such splendid company for many a year,” the princess informed him.
Campbell grinned. “Neither have I. What did the Captain have to say of me?”
“Apparently his scar is your fault.”
“It is,” the Outlander admitted. “But I would rather have him as an enemy than as my killer.”
“He’s an exceptionally skilled warrior,” Hannah told him. “To best him is an accomplishment that few can boast of… if I may, where did you learn to dance in Heartland style?”
“I didn’t,” Campbell said. “I’m learning as I go.”
She stared at him. “Surely you’re joking.”
“I watched the others. ‘Tis not so hard to understand once you try it yourself.”
“You seem to be a man of many talents, Campbell.”
That made him smile. He leaned in, close, and Hannah suddenly felt her breath catch. This close, she could feel the warmth radiating from his skin, his musky, earthy scent filling her nose. She looked up, searching his eyes… green with gold flecks that seemed to glow with an inner fire.
“And you, princess, are the most beautiful creature ever to set foot on the entire earth.”
She exhaled, and realised that she was leaning closer again, feeling his breath tickle her nose…
“The dance has finished,” Peter said, right into Hannah’s ear.
She flinched, and Campbell hastily stepped back, allowing the princess’ absurdly dressed cousin to take her arm and draw her into the next dance. Whenever Peter moved, the bells on his outfit tinkled merrily, and Hannah glared at him as he twirled her about across the marble.
“Dancing, I approve of. That kind of dancing, I do not.”
“I don’t need your approval,” Hannah shot back.
“Let me put it more delicately, then. Supposing I just sat by and let our strapping young Outlander kiss you, do you honestly think that Jacob would let him survive the night? Really?”
“Jacob isn’t interested in me. Not like that.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not. But that doesn’t mean he’s not protective.”
Hannah forced herself to smile, to shake off the sudden feeling of disappointment that had settled over her. She couldn’t help it after looking at Peter – the usually stall, dark-clad noble looked nothing like himself. The bells and bright colours and face paint made him look like a lunatic, and his manic grin did nothing but convince her that he would probably do a better job as a jester than as a steward of the realm. And she could see that Peter was right. She barely knew Campbell, after all.
Didn’t stop her face warming every time she thought of him, though…
Peter finished the dance, and then turned to Hannah.
“If you’re even remotely curious about what the Outlanders are actually supposed to be doing here, the peace treaty has come off quite nicely so far…” He looked down at her.
Hannah barely heard him. She felt a tingle run the entire way down her spine…
Magic. Powerful magic was nearby, growing stronger by the minute…
And then there was a hellish screech, an explosion of sound.
Guests collapsed right and left, clutching at their ears. Hannah managed to stay on her feet, but she was strangely unsteady and Peter caught hold of her, pulling her towards the marble dais that led back to the chambers. Something slammed against the doors to the Grand Hall, oak as thick as a man’s chest and reinforced with steel. Again, and again, shaking the ground, all the while that hideous screaming ripping through the air, deafening and seemingly endless.
Peter let Hannah down on the stairs, and then looked up at Jacob, who vaulted the balustrade, landing like a cat on the rock-solid marble, and then sprang away, racing towards the entrance to the Hall so fast that he blurred out of sight. Peter ripped his jester’s hat off his head, shaking free a mane of dark hair, and then followed his step brother towards it.
A familiar face swam into view.
He gestured to the hallways, and she nodded, understanding.
The Outlander drew his dirk, and reversed his grip on the hilt in an instant, holding it point-down. In his free hand, flames flared to life. He saw her stare and grinned, before turning. The court nobility were scurrying for cover. The screaming stopped abruptly, and sound came back into the world, ringing hard. Screams of terror and fear. Then a final, crushing blow that slammed against the doors, smashing them clean off their massive hinges and crashing to the marble floor. A massive, triangular face with huge slitted nostrils and pure white eyes pushed inside, covered in a thick fur. Hannah’s eyes widened when she finally recognised what it was.
It squirmed, twisting through the doors, just as Jacob reached it. He was barely half the size of the monster, and there wasn’t any sign of a weapon in his hands. The Captain jumped, somersaulting in the air, and then landing beside the creature’s eye, hanging off one of its ears. The bat writhed, trying to shake him loose, as he tightened his grip, and then turned, plunging his fist into the nearby eyeball. The hellish screech began again, and Hannah saw the white eye go black and red.
Campbell appeared from behind a pillar, and shouted an inaudible question.
Jacob half-turned, ripping his hand from the bat’s eye socket, dripping with dark slime, and nodded. The flames in Campbell’s hand suddenly expanded, exploding from his palm in a stream of fire, bathing one of the bat’s wings entirely in flames. The monster spun, catching Campbell and spinning him away across the marble like a toy. Jacob clung on, before the monster suddenly torqued, rotating its head. The Captain spun into the air, and the bat opened its mouth to catch him in it. But a second before he slid straight down into the creature’s gut, he twisted and caught hold of one of its teeth, jamming his feet up against the roof of its mouth and holding its jaws open.
The screeching cut off abruptly.
Hannah’s hearing returned to its normal state, and she heard Jacob shout.
Campbell staggered into view, and then saw the bat thrashing its head back and forth, the Captain of the Guard inside its mouth. He tossed his knife underarm, up into the air, a tiny length of sharp steel that shone like a star in the candlelight. Jacob’s hand shot out of nowhere, snagged it, and then suddenly, the monster managed to close its mouth down on top of him. There was deathly silence inside the Grand Hall, and then a strange, muted schlunk sound.
The bat staggered, losing its footing on the marble and crashing down on its face, leaking fluids from its destroyed eye. Hannah stared at it, and then flinched violently as the entire side of the monster’s neck exploded, and Jacob came tumbling out of the corpse, his usually white-grey uniform splattered with red and black. He found his feet on the floor, and then found himself standing in front of the Outlander, who spoke. Hannah was too far away to hear what was said, but Jacob grinned and handed him his knife back. Campbell slapped him on the shoulder, and the Captain started back towards the dais, dripping with slime and gore from the corpse of the monster that he’d just killed.
Peter appeared from behind one of the pillars.
“Where were you?” Jacob asked.
“You had it, hands-down. You didn’t need my help.”
“That, or you were scared stiff,” the Captain said.
Peter shook his head. “I had faith in you.”
Hannah stood up shakily.
“What was that?”
“A bat out of hell?” Campbell suggested.
“Doubt it,” Jacob said.
“Furry bats wouldn’t live in hell. Too much fire.”
Campbell grinned at that. “Are you all right, Hannah?”
She nodded. “Just feeling a little sick.”
“Not surprised. That kind of sound would make anyone a little dizzy.” Peter caught her arm. “I’ll take her back to her chambers. Captain, I trust that you can clean up this mess?”
Jacob frowned, but nodded.
Hannah let her cousin guide her towards her rooms.
“What was that?” she asked.
Peter shook his head, looking troubled.
“I’m not sure. I’ve never heard of bats that size before. Especially not hairy ones.” He pulled to halt in front of her rooms. “Best get some sleep. We’ll enquire into it, but we need you rested and ready for tomorrow. The nobles will be terrified, and they’ll be blaming everyone but themselves.”
Hannah nodded weakly. “That sounds like them.”
Peter chuckled, and halted in front of her door.
He pushed the door open, and then brushed a strand of hair out of her eye.
“Sleep, Hannah. Sleep deep, and don’t dream.”
She nodded, and then stepped into her room.
Peter closed the door behind her with a soft click.
The princess walked towards her bed, and sat down, her head swimming. She felt the illness receding, and drowsiness crushing in on her like the weight of the sky. It was so sudden that she could barely keep her eyes open. Carefully, she slipped off her shoes, and then crawled close to her pillow, strength draining out of her like water. What had happened? Had the bat’s scream done more to her than just made her head spin and stomach feel like it was doing somersaults?
A final, flickering thought touched her mind…
The bat hadn’t done this.
No, something different…
Much more powerful.
Hannah exhaled, closed her eyes…
And fell into the dark arms of slumber.
When she opened her eyes, it was late morning.
Hannah quickly rose, shaking off her sleep, feeling fresh, fresher than she’d been for weeks. She took a moment to splash water on her face and arms, and then dress – after that, it was simple enough to walk down towards the Grand Hall. Hannah had a passing page make sure that she was served breakfast there, and then found Jacob waiting for her.
Beside him was Campbell.
The Captain’s expression was tight, and there was something dangerous in his eyes.
Campbell, however, was smiling, grinning at her like she was the most important thing in the world.
“Good morning,” Hannah greeted them. “I see that the bat was taken away.”
“It was reasonably simple with some help from the Outlanders,” Jacob informed her.
She frowned. “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”
“My kin have vanished,” Campbell said, his smile fading.
Hannah gaped. “What?”
“They were gone from the courtyard as soon as I went down after the ball,” Campbell explained. “I leant a hand to the Captain and his men, but by the time I made my way to the courtyard, they’d vanished. Tents, everything. There wasn’t a single thread left behind.”
“Why would they just pack up and leave?” Hannah asked. “We haven’t finished the treaty…”
“There’s one thing that Campbell left out,” Jacob interrupted. “Peter’s gone.”
“Gone. Just like the Clanmeet.”
“Search the Palace, he has to be…”
“Hannah, I already have,” Jacob told her.
Hannah sat down, hard, on the marble dais.
“What’s going on…? First the bat, now everyone else…?”
“The Clanmeet must have taken him,” Jacob said.
Campbell flared up. “We came here to talk peace, Captain.”
The princess could tell that they’d already had this argument.
“Send out a patrol. They have to be close by.”
“Already done,” Jacob told her. “Four of them, with messengers. Nothing.”
“Our horses aren’t built for speed,” Campbell added. “They wouldn’t have gotten far.”
“So where are they?”
The voice made them all spin.
Peter stood at the head of the stairs, dressed entirely in black, a sardonic grin on his face and his hands in his coat pockets. Hannah started, and the others froze when they saw him. Gone was the jester’s outfit – he looked to be all business.
“Where’ve you been?” Jacob demanded.
“About,” his stepbrother offered. “In any case, I’ll give you the first clue to this little riddle. The Clanmeet are with me, and none too happy about it, I might add. They’ve not been cooperative, but thankfully, there’s nothing like a little torture to loosen people up.”
The doors to the Grand Hall, newly replaced, cracked open.
An Outlander staggered into sight, and Hannah fought back a wave of nausea.
He’d been sliced to shreds, red stripes on every inch of his body, blood charging down his skin. As soon as he caught sight of them, he lost his footing and hit the white marble, staining it scarlet. Campbell cursed in his native tongue, and raced down towards his countryman, followed closely by Jacob. Hannah hung back a little as they drew near to him. The man was gasping for breath, but there was a savage glint in his eyes as he looked up at Campbell, who cradled his head, not seeming to care or even notice the blood. It took Hannah a moment to realise who it was – the older man who she’d seen talking to Campbell in the camp.
“He… he has the Clanmeet…”
“We know. It’s all right, MacCulligan. You’ve done well.”
“Where are they?” Jacob asked quickly. “Where is he keeping them?”
MacCulligan’s breath caught in his chest, and he gagged, spitting blood.
Before he could speak, his breath escaped his lungs and he went still.
Campbell looked up, and saw Peter leaning against a nearby pillar.
“… save it, Campbell.” Hannah turned to him. “What the hell have you done?”
He rolled his eyes. “How many times must I tell you? Even Stripy there gave you a hint.”
“Why?” A single, brutal, cold word delivered by Jacob.
“You’re a lunatic,” his stepbrother said.
Peter shrugged. “Close enough. I got bored.”
“You think that this is a game?” Campbell roared, suddenly on his feet. “These are my people! They came here to talk peace, and you’re using them as personal entertainment?! What the hell…?”
Hannah caught hold of his arm, and winced – it was burning like fire. “Calm down.”
She spoke softly in his ear, and he tore his eyes away from Peter, looking down at her. The princess could see fear and hate and despair and grief all in his eyes, all battling to drive him into an insane fit of anger. Campbell inhaled deeply, forcing himself to calm down, and she nodded.
“This is treason,” Hannah said, turning back to Peter.
He grinned. “I think of it as chess. Hide and seek. Cards. Whatever you want to call it. A game of skill. You find me, you have two prizes – my guilty hide and the Clanmeet. You don’t… well, suffice it to say that MacCulligan won’t be the last one sent to the Hall in pieces.”
“No trial,” Jacob spat. “Just execution. Best you know what you’re dealing with.”
Peter’s grin widened and he spread his arms wide.
“Come at me, brother. See what good it does you.”
Jacob lunged, but Peter suddenly dissolved into black smoke.
“And they made you Captain?” Peter’s voice taunted from ten feet away.
A bolt of fire flared to life from Campbell’s hand and lanced towards him, but he simply exploded into dark mist again. Hannah turned and saw Peter standing directly behind them, shaking his head to himself. She looked into his eyes, and knew that this wasn’t him – merely another shade, another projection. The princess almost kicked herself for not realising it – her cousin was a brilliant Practitioner. To be able to create shades of such realism must have taken years of practice to master.
“Come find me, Hannah.”
“This isn’t a game, Peter.”
That grin again. “Oh, but it is.”
He gestured at the others. “They won’t help you. They think like warriors – but this fight will be won with the mind and will, not fists nor fire. You are your parent’s daughter, after all.”
And with his laugh echoing around the Grand Hall…
Peter vanished into thin air.
Jacob and Campbell looked to Hannah.
Deathly silence reigned for a full two minutes, until the Captain finally spoke.
“What are your orders, Highness?”
“Find Peter. Bring him back alive, if possible…” Hannah shook her head to herself. “But don’t take unnecessary risks. Execute him if you have no other choice.” She was aware of the gravity of her words – the hardest decision she’d ever had to make. “Start with the Palace. Search everywhere.”
Jacob nodded, and disappeared as he ran towards the stairs.
Campbell looked down at his dead kinsman. “He’ll pay for this.”
“You have my word,” Hannah told him.
He looked up at her. “He’s the jester, isn’t he?”
“He’s my cousin. My main advisor.”
“And you didn’t expect…”
Hannah shook her head. “Nothing. He’s never been like this before.”
Campbell moved to pick up MacCulligan’s body.
“Leave him with the attendants,” the princess told him. “They’ll treat him with respect until we can find the Clanmeet. In the meantime… we have to find Peter. Or at least find a trace of him.”
The Outlander looked at her for a long moment, and then nodded.
Jacob reported back to Hannah, who was in the courtyard, an hour and a half later.
“What did you find?”
“Not much, just this.” The Captain handed her a small piece of parchment.
Hannah read it aloud. “If you’ve actually gone so far as to rip my chambers to shreds, then you’ll find this waiting for you. It’s obvious that you’re all still completely in the dark, so let’s speed things up a little. Look in the southeast wall compartment where we used to hide from the Guard. From there, you might start to get an idea as to where I am.”
The princess looked up at Jacob. “You destroyed his apartment?”
His stony silence told her all she needed to know.
She stood up. “Come on, let’s go.”
Campbell appeared from the Palace gates, leading a horse by its bridle. It looked fresh and glossy, and the Outlander had a determined set about his face. Hannah spoke before he could even start.
“You’re planning on leaving us?”
“I have to. The clans need to know about this.”
“So you’d throw us all into war because you don’t think we’re capable enough to take care of our own problems?” Jacob said in disgust. “We need time. Your help wouldn’t go amiss, either.”
“My people can help. We have trackers…”
“You don’t understand, do you?” Hannah said, shaking her head. “He’s going to lead us all straight to him. He wants us to find him. It’s just a game for him, and he wants us to understand just how brilliant he actually is. He’s willing to risk the brand of traitor and even execution to play this game.” Jacob looked at her. “That, or he’s lying and he’s a complete lunatic.”
“Could be both,” Campbell added. “But the clans still need to know.”
“They can learn after we find him,” the princess told him. “Not before.”
A strange smile touched his face. “You’re taking me prisoner?”
The southeast wall compartment that Peter had mentioned in his note was well-known by Hannah. Back when she was much younger, still around twelve or so, he’d first arrived at the Palace. The princess had been quite demanding, and her cousin had played countless games of hide-and-seek with her. But there had always been one problem – when it came to be her turn to find him, she couldn’t. It was as if he’d just vanished. She spent hours searching from him, and he’d eventually tire of the game and come to find her. One day, she’d started bugging him about his hiding spot. It’d taken almost three months, but he finally showed her where he’d been hiding himself.
A hollowed-out section of the wall.
Peter had guessed that it was used to hide stolen goods in one point, especially since it was so well hidden. Hannah found the right crack between the stones, and then, using Campbell’s dirk, she pressed the hidden lever that swung open a hidden door. The metallic smell of blood hit her like a hammer blow, and she froze. Campbell stepped in first, flames coming to life in his hands and casting light into the dark space. He cursed in his own language, once, twice, three times.
“What is it…?”
“MacKill,” Campbell said bitterly.
Hannah touched his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
“We need to find this murdering bastard before he…”
Hannah caught sight of something that made her stop short.
She stepped past Campbell, willing herself not to throw up as she crouched down in front of MacKill’s inert corpse. He’d been killed with a knife, much like MacCulligan, but this time, Peter had left behind a message. It wasn’t much, and it wouldn’t make sense to the others, but Hannah now knew exactly where he was. In MacKill’s hand was a golden flower – the kind that only grew in the woods a few miles away from the Palace. She remembered Peter taking her there at one point, a few years back. That was the only place that these kinds of flowers grew. She remembered because she loved them so much.
Hannah darted out of the hiding place and ran for the Palace Gates.
A powerful arm caught hold of her forearm, checked her speed.
“Where are you going?” Jacob demanded.
“I know where he is.”
“Where?” Campbell demanded, a beat ahead of the Captain.
“You won’t find the Clanmeet there, Campbell.”
Jacob positioned himself between her and the gates.
“You’re not going anywhere. Not without me.”
Hannah eyeballed him with all the sternness she could muster.
“Help Campbell. Find the Clanmeet. They’re not outside the Palace. I can promise you that much.”
“I’m not letting you anywhere near that murdering lunatic, Hannah, and that’s final!”
She sighed, and stepped back. “My choice, not yours.”
The princess spun three times on her heel, and a moment later, she caught a draft of wind which caught her feathers and shot her through the air like an arrow. In seconds, the Palace was shrinking, and Hannah’s hawk body was racing through the sky. Her razor-sharp eyes combed the trees for any sign of Peter, but the thick foliage blocked her view – she couldn’t see through it. Her best bet was to dive down through the leaves and confront him on foot.
Well, maybe not on foot…
She dived through the canopy, spun three times in the air, and then hit the ground with four paws, suddenly a wolf the size of an oxcart. She’d changed straight from one animal to another – something that she’d never managed before. The wolf’s vision was different, an unfamiliar swirl of colours touching her vision. Smells were more vibrant, and as she caught a very familiar scent, she looked up at the black-clad creature, standing in the middle of a clearing swimming with golden roses.
“I have to admit, I’m impressed, Hannah.”
Peter’s voice, edged with a grin.
She let out a guttural snarl.
Alternatively, we could talk like THIS, if you want.
His voice, echoing inside her head.
Hannah flinched at the unexpectedness of it.
How are you…?
Practitioner, remember? My powers aren’t like my step-brother’s…they’re more focused on the mind. Illusion, manipulation, disorientation. Perhaps not as brutally effective as my brother in combat, but useful enough in its own way.
Hannah growled and stalked forwards towards him.
You’ve gone too far, Peter. The Clanmeet were here to talk peace. You’ve practically started a war.
Her cousin laughed incredulously. This wasn’t about the Outlanders, Hans. Never was.
What are you talking about now? You KILLED them!
He shook his head like it wasn’t important. It’s always been about YOU, princess. Not them.
She darted forwards, pinning him to the ground easily with a paw the size of a dinner plate.
WHY?! Why would you betray us like this?
This was never my idea in the first place, Hannah. Your parents put this in place. Believe me, everything else was secondary, regardless of your feelings. They had to know whether or not you were fit to rule, ready to head a kingdom by yourself, should something happen to them.
She shook her head. You’re lying. My parents would never order you to kill diplomats. Especially not from the Outlands. What you did was unforgivable. I should just kill you here and now and be done with it. The princess felt the wolf’s rage match her own, and she glared into his hazel-green eyes.
Peter spoke aloud. “So, this is where all this ends, then. This has been exciting.”
You’re insane, Peter. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I didn’t see it sooner.
He cracked that manic grin of his. “Don’t apologise, Hans.”
She took a deep, rasping breath, and then went for his throat, all tender, important strips of meat…
And then the world turned into black smoke, spinning around her so fast that she could barely keep herself upright. She spun three times, and collapsed on the ground as a human. It made no sense. What was happening? Where was Peter…?
He chuckled. “Well, that was engaging.”
She couldn’t fix on where he was, only his voice, which seemed to reverberate all around like some kind of giant percussion instrument in a hollow hall of stone. The princess stood up.
“Show yourself,” she challenged.
“You’ll see me soon enough. Just wait.”
“Well done, Hannah. Well done indeed.”
The smoke around her seemed to thin, and she could see people dancing in a marble hall, spinning to lively tunes played by an accomplished orchestra. It was familiar, floating at the edge of her vision, and before she knew it, she was back in her red dress and crown, her hair perfect, stepping in time with a jester in an absurd costume with garish colours and bells.
She froze, and he paused, still grinning, just like his old self.
“As I was saying, the peace treaty with the Outlanders….”
“Peter, what…?” Hannah looked around the hall, and saw both Campbell and Jacob watching her, alert to her suddenly disorientated, confused state. “How did… can you change time?”
“Not quite,” he chuckled in her ear, gently continuing the dance. “Just your perception of it.”
“Would you like me to explain, or shall I leave you to guess?”
“Explain,” she ordered, trying her best to smile for the crowd.
“As you command.” Peter laughed. “Now, if everything you saw was true, there should be a huge bat destroying the Hall’s doors about now. But there never was a bat. That wasn’t anything more than an illusion. You felt a tingle of magic, yes? That was me reshaping the world in your mind.”
“So the Clanmeet…?”
“Perfectly safe and happy. If a little disgruntled.”
“You didn’t kill them?”
“Of course not. That was merely my way of encouraging you to come and find me, do what was right. You didn’t hide behind Jacob or Campbell, not like any usual princess would. Your sense of duty wouldn’t stand up to that. You came looking for me personally, ready to carry out Heartland’s murder laws, even on one of your own kin. Now that is dedication, Hans.”
“You mentioned my parents,” Hannah said. “This was their idea?”
“They knew that you’d have to stand up on your own two feet sometime soon.”
Hannah could hardly believe her ears.
“You’re telling me that everything I experienced over the last two days was a trick?”
Peter shrugged unashamedly. “Pretty much.”
“Just to test my ability to lead?”
“Close enough.” The jester grinned, and then the dance finished and he was standing a little away from her. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think a certain young Outlander is craving another dance. I’ll do my best to pacify my little brother, but perhaps you’d like to steer away from anything too… shall we say overtly public?”
“You realise I can’t ever trust you now, right?” Hannah called after him.
He grinned at that. “Perfectly. But that’s the curse of an illusionist.”
“Thank you,” she finally said.
His laugh rang out loud and clear.
“Don’t thank me just yet, Hans.”
He exploded into black smoke, but his voice spoke into her mind…
Don’t trust your eyes, or your senses. The only trust you can truly place is in your heart.
Is this another test? Hannah demanded of him.
He just chuckled. YOU tell ME.
She shook her head, and danced the night away with Campbell, with the occasional venture onto the floor with Jacob. The princess had no idea what her cousin was up to, or whether or not anything she was doing was actually happening. But she was content with what she had. She had more than enough to live…
Happily Ever After.