A Lady’s Destiny
A tale by Valena D’Angelis
It was raining—anything to make this day worse! The clouds swelled up in the sky, becoming thick grey packs of dust. The wind howled so loud, it practically sounded like a sad and lonely cat. Prudence did her best to keep her composure, but at this point, she just wanted to cry. It was her fault that they were there, walking—if they could even call it walking—in the mud under heavy rain, in the middle of what could pass as a marsh by now.
Her cloak dripped with the rain it collected. Her farmer’s tunic, which she’d picked herself because a blossoming pink satin gown might have been a little too obvious, had soaked through. Her leather boots, the ones she’d borrowed from her handmaid Amelia, well, they were not really boots anymore, just muddy sacks of squishy fabric. Thomas seemed to be holding it together much better than she did. Just looking at him made her feel bad. Not in envy because somehow, his black hair was still dry, but because she had dragged him there, from their home in Sungarden all the way to Forsynthia, and he was pounding the wet ground, dragging both their satchels.
One may have wondered why they weren’t letting Flip, their brown draught horse with an immaculate white stripe on his head, ride them out of the rain. Flip was tall, sturdy, performant. One may have thought, they’d be better off galloping out of these ugly clouds. One may also have wondered why she led Flip instead of Thomas, the stableboy turned bodyguard in a single night.
For one, Flip was tired, and Prudence already felt terrible for Thomas dragging their satchels. And two, they would have liked to do precisely that, but Flip had halted the second they’d reach that particular field. Flip didn’t like bogs, and after some thought, this was definitely a bog.
What a stupid, stupid, stupid idea to come all the way here. Prudence had never thought of the repercussions of such adventure. What did she even think? Coming all the way here for some boy she’d only met once? Using—exhausting—all her connections to find this boy’s name and where he came from? Was her heart this adamant that she couldn’t do anything else but follow it?
Stupid, stupid, stupid Prudence.
She’d snuck out into the night, grabbing Thomas by the wrist, and for what, exactly? Her father had probably already sent dozens of search parties after her. There was only this much acting Amelia could do. The magistrate was a busy man, but he’d see through their farce. It wasn’t like Prudence to spend days in her room, even when she had, supposedly, caught a cold. And it wasn’t like Amelia to suddenly vanish.
Prudence had not thought of the consequences. Amelia might get in trouble; she already dreaded that. Thomas might get in trouble for accompanying her, and she, oh, she would definitely be scolded for heading out into the wild to find the boy named Merlin. Prudence hadn’t been able to get him out of her thoughts. Considering everything that was going on in the city, even if she’d only heard echoes of rebellious activity that was no danger to her anyway, she should at least have had something else on her mind. But no. Merlin, the handsome boy with dark brown eyes, was etched in her mind like a persistent memory that would never leave.
She had to make it leave now. She couldn’t explain it. She wasn’t even sure if she believed it. But the old man at the keep had sounded very convincing. Merlin didn’t exist. Merlin wasn’t a boy; he wasn’t even a person. He was an idea, an image of what someone else had wished him to be. Prudence didn’t understand it at all, but one thing was sure: that fact broke her heart.
Prudence wiped the tears in her eyes, but she didn’t really care if Thomas saw it. She could lie and say it was the rain. Thomas didn’t notice at all, which made her feel a little lost. Maybe she wanted someone to comfort her, tell her it’d all be okay. The situation certainly didn’t make her feel any better, so she just needed some brief comfort. A soothing voice. Why did she have to think of her mother in moments like this?
“Pru?” Thomas called to catch her attention, which she didn’t give. She simply kept on walking, pulling on Flip’s reins. “Pru, I think we should stop.”
She paused. She didn’t want to stop now. Stop where? There was nothing but mud and dirty grass around them. “We have to keep walking and get out of the marsh.”
“I know you want to go home,” Thomas said, probably using his husky voice to try and reason with her. “But it’s getting late. We’re tired, and we need to get out of this rain.”
“I’m not tired.” Prudence started walking again.
Thomas sighed. “Well, I am.” And so was Flip because he didn’t walk with her anymore.
Prudence grunted, but it was more of a repressed scream. She wanted those emotions out, but she didn’t want to expel them in front of Flip or Thomas. Maybe it would frighten them into running away and leaving her out there, alone. She had to concede.
“If we go up that hill,” Thomas pointed left, “we’ll reach a small village. I know a few people there. We can stay for the night.”
Prudence opened her mouth slightly. “Stay for the night?” Her voice followed her frown. “Father is probably already looking for me. If we don’t get back quick, he’ll get mad.”
“With this weather, we might not make it back before morning anyway.” Thomas suddenly sounded angrier than soothing. “We’re on foot, Prudence, and I don’t see Flip letting us ride him anytime soon!” He never called her Prudence unless there was a good reason.
Prudence didn’t say anything back. Thomas let out a long sigh. His shoulders relaxed, and since the lady wasn’t reacting to anything, he took matters into his own hands and changed their trajectory. Up the left hill was the next destination. Prudence simply followed. Thomas was right. They were on foot, and wouldn’t get far at this pace. It was getting late, and if she had to admit it, she was starving. Flip started walking as though he had understood the conversation that had just taken place, and he followed their lead up the hill.
It wasn’t anything like Prudence had expected. Standing in the rain above the hill, she could see a single grey spot at the bottom of it, like a lump of dusty rocks forming a pile of sad houses all stuck to each other. It didn’t look appealing, and it most certainly didn’t look like a place she would frequent. Prudence wasn’t at ease. Something in her stomach grew, and if she’d let it grow any longer, it’d turn into worry.
“What is that place?” she asked, her tone more condescending than she’d have liked.
Thomas pointed. “That’s Hillcove. Sure, it’s within Daltain’s borders, but the village doesn’t really connect with Sungarden.”
“I can see that.”
“Come on, let’s go.”
Thomas didn’t seem to mind her tone, even if she really wanted to change it. Prudence knew not every village or city shone as bright as her home. Sungarden was known for its prestige and charm. Such beauty wasn’t possible everywhere. But she couldn’t help sounding a little too entitled to at least this level of comfort. She had to make peace with the fact that she’d probably sleep on one of those dusty stones tonight under a roof of manure. As wretched as it sounded, it was better than drowning in the marsh.
They reached Hillcove after the sun disappeared behind the hill. Tiny glass lanterns lit the trail to the village, but it wasn’t warm or welcoming. It was like approaching a witch’s den. The lights made it look haunted, full of resentful ghosts ready to spring from the shadows. There was no one in sight, and the houses were dark. Maybe the village was abandoned? Worry gnawed at Prudence, then.
Thomas must have noticed because he drew closer to her. “Most people hang around the chapel at this hour,” he said. “There’s an inn there, the Rusty Snout. We can stay there for the night.”
“I hope I can at least take a bath!” Prudence whined. “I hope it’s not as gloomy as the rest of this place.”
“It sure is,” Thomas teased. Prudence instantly turned her face to him to check if he was serious. The smirk showed he wasn’t. “Well, the innkeeper might be a little gloomy.”
He laughed. Hearing him laugh lit the mood instantly. Thomas was taking in the place much better than she was. After all, he was a stableboy; he was used to dry hay and stinky manure. But he was also used to the comfort of the Sungarden palace, so why didn’t their circumstances bother him more?
Prudence couldn’t remember a single day of her life without Thomas. In one of her first memories, he was there, stroking the pony she was about to ride. He must have been about seven years old then. He was wearing a dirty tunic that seemed too big for his body. Little Thomas had worn a round cap that was too large for his shiny blond head. Thomas was the adopted boy from the palace’s chef Geraldine. She’d fetched him out of the gutter, lost and alone, gave him a home in the Sungarden palace. Thomas took a liking to baby Prudence very quickly. He practically always watched over her and guarded her. She didn’t need a nanny when she had the stableboy with the fierce broomstick of doom.
Thomas still wore his round cap to that day, though his hair had darkened considerably, and he looked roughly ten years older. A skilled rider, Prudence had taken all her lessons from him. Thomas excelled at every task he undertook, from riding a horse to even the art of dueling. He had grown into a fearless young man—though they still called him stableboy—who wielded a sword instead of a wooden stick. One day, he might join the Sungarden Guard. Prudence always thought he’d look good in the official plate armor. He was her best friend, and her best friend deserved such a highly regarded position.
It didn’t take them long to reach the old chapel. It stood at the southern edge of a small plaza surrounded by larger houses than they’d seen so far. Though, even if they were bigger, they were as dirty and repulsive as every other. The stone walls were covered in an oozing layer of dust. The roofs were either made of darkened hay or rotten wood. Maintenance was most definitely not this village’s forte!
“Why do I get the chills from this place?” Prudence asked.
Thomas chuckled. “It’s not as dismal as it seems, Pru, just relax.”
“You can’t tell me to relax,” she barked in a whisper. Maybe a ghost would hear her complain and come at her with a misty fist. “This place is like a graveyard!”
Thomas kept on walking toward the building right next to the chapel. Drawing closer, Prudence noticed the light inside. Even through the rain, she could see the blurry figures of people seated at tables, laughing, eating, talking loudly. She could even hear their echoes. It sounded warm and hearty. Prudence suddenly felt the urge to join the strangers. The world inside the inn was completely different, like an isolated bubble inside the vast sea of grey where she swam, lost.
“Would a graveyard have such a lovely inn?” Thomas asked. His smirk was back.
Prudence didn’t know what to say. There were stables to the side of the building where she could leave Flip to rest. There was even a bit of hay left in the feeder. Flip didn’t hesitate for a moment. He started eating like any hungry horse would, reminding Prudence that she, too, was starving. She patted him on the neck and left him to follow Thomas inside the Rusty Snout.
The rain and stench outside were quickly forgotten. Inside, it was like stepping into an entirely different world—a place of warmth, joy, family. Prudence had never seen anything like it. The tables were messy. The metallic clanks of knives and forks battling each other echoed in a constant iron cacophony that would drive a fool crazy. There was a smell of braised chicken and roasted rosemary potatoes lingering in the air, so strong that it was probably engraved in the wooden beams supporting the inn’s roof. Despite it all, the place was most welcoming. Prudence looked up instinctively, following the smell. She hadn’t noticed all the gazes aiming at her. The inn fell silent so suddenly.
Everyone within was either muddy or smelly. The innkeeper of the Rusty Snout, a man with tanned skin and a funny smile, looked at Prudence with a confused glare. With her porcelain skin, she was still the most immaculate of them all, despite her wet hair and dirty face. That was probably why he sent her the befuddled look. Thomas took the lead, removing his beret to salute his audience.
But before he could speak, the innkeeper’s smile turned to laughter. His brown eyes lit bright, like the memory of something he was particularly fond of had just returned.
“Thomas, hey! It’s been too long!” the innkeeper cheered.
Thomas discarded his beret in his coat pocket and rushed to the counter, seizing the innkeeper’s hand, and shaking it with the pride of friendship.
“Anthony! How are you doing, ol’man?” Thomas asked between laughter and smiles.
“I’m good. How about you? Still hanging around that Sungarden palace, aren’t you?”
Prudence was confused, but some things started to make sense. Thomas knew this village; he knew how to get there and where to find the inn. He talked about it like he’d been there before. Plus, Hillcove, there was something familiar about that name now that she thought about it.
“Pru, this is Anthony,” Thomas motioned for Prudence to come closer. He looked so joyous. “He’s my… Let’s say he’s like an uncle to me.”
“H-hi…” Prudence mumbled while shaking Anthony’s hand.
Words were exchanged, especially between Thomas and Anthony. Prudence mainly was silent, still solving the Thomas riddle. Anthony told her things about how adventurous young Thomas used to be. How he’d climb trees, roll in the mud with the pigs, chase chickens and make them his friends. Prudence was discovering a side of Thomas she had never heard of, but it didn’t surprise her. It sounded like what a young Thomas would do.
“So, who’s this girl, ma’boy?” Anthony asked. A cheeky smirk appeared on his face. “Is she one of your—”
Thomas interrupted him right then and there. “No, no, she’s…” He checked with Prudence. She didn’t want her identity revealed in the first place, so he should stick to their story. “She works in the palace with me.”
Anthony’s smirk was replaced with a suspicious frown. It didn’t look like he bought Thomas’s story, but he accepted it anyway, handing him a cup of something unknown to Prudence. Before satisfying a customer’s attention, Anthony instructed Thomas and Prudence to sit at the nearest table. He’d prepare a nice meal for them. They simultaneously removed their soaked cloaks and took a seat, waiting patiently, first without talking, until the inn’s silence became background noise again. Prudence wanted to ask Thomas a great deal of questions. How did he know this place? Did he come from here? This dirty hole? What even was that drink? But another man passed by their table, cheering at Thomas, running his hand through the young man’s hair and tousling it. And another man passed by, and another. Even a woman came to greet and tell him how happy she was to see Tommy again.
“Tommy?” Prudence checked, almost teasing Thomas once the woman was gone. “How do you know all these people?”
Thomas took a sip of the drink Anthony had brought him. He cleared his throat after swallowing, wincing slightly. “This is where I come from. I’m a Hillcove native, and I’m proud of it.”
“Well… It’s a nice…place.”
Thomas chuckled. “Not really, but you know that.”
His tone had changed. He wore a smile a second ago, but his expression grew awkward.
“What do you mean?” Prudence wondered why the sudden mood switch.
Thomas took a moment to look around while he finished his drink. Only then did he answer. “Oh, come on, you hate this place. It’s not Sungarden, and it most certainly isn’t the palace.”
“I didn’t say I hated it. It’s just…gloomy. But everyone here seems nice.”
“That they are.”
Their meal was served. Roasted chicken, potatoes, gravy, and peas that looked greener than possible. To think that such culinary achievement was possible in a village like this… The smell was divine. It was like time had just stopped. Prudence dived in, eating like it was her last meal in their lives. Thomas did the exact same. They were both famished and needed this moment to replenish so they could speak again.
“Oh my, this is delicious!” Prudence exclaimed with a mouthful. Her eyes were wide open in delight—the taste was even better than its smell! “I would eat here every day if I were you!”
“Well, I still come back from time to time, so I got that going for me.” Thomas had already finished his plate.
Prudence wanted to ask about this village—his village. She didn’t know much about his life before he came to Sungarden. Now, she wanted to know everything. His childhood friends, Anthony, his birth parents…
But Thomas wouldn’t tell her about that last part. He never talked about that part.
“Will you tell me something, Thomas?” Prudence began. He gave her a nod so that she’d continue. “This place is so wonderful.” It really was. She had to admit it to herself. All the joy and happiness condensed in one location made her forget the misery outside. Well, not entirely forget. “Why is the rest so grim?”
Thomas’s eyes went dark. He was about to say something.
“I mean,” Prudence interrupted, clearing her throat so as not to say something stupid that would offend Thomas and his home, “if this village is part of Daltain, shouldn’t it be at least…cleaned once in a while?”
Thomas reclined in his seat. “What makes you say that?”
“Well, look at Sungarden. All the beauty there—”
Prudence frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Look at Sungarden.” His tone was evident, but his words didn’t make much sense.
She wasn’t getting the point. She knew there was a point, and Thomas’s expression didn’t reveal anything particularly good about where this conversation was going. Were they headed toward a touchy subject? She’d never seen him this…distant. Thomas took one more sip of his drink, which reminded her that she hadn’t asked about it yet. She couldn’t really smell it from here, but the dark red color had an attractive glow to it.
“What is that in your cup?” she asked.
His hand was still clutched around the cup like he didn’t want to let it go. “Prune juice.”
She went for it. One hand out and she was about to pull it out of his hand.
“Ha! It’s not a drink for a lady!” he exclaimed, drawing arcs in the air with the cup to avoid her grasp.
Her lips folded in a pout when she gave up. She crossed her arms, glaring at him.
“What’s going on in this village?” If she wasn’t allowed to check the prune juice, she’d stick to the original conversation, whether Thomas liked it or not.
“What makes you think something’s going on?”
“Well, for one, the houses are barely standing.” She began counting on her fingers. “Two, the roofs are covered in mud. Three, there’s not even a proper road. Four, I didn’t see a well. Those sad lanterns outside look like one more rainfall, and they’ll die out. Should I keep going?”
Thomas held the same expression throughout her entire enumeration.
“I’ve been out of Sungarden. None of the towns I’ve visited look like this! So, I’ll repeat, what’s going on with this village? What’s wrong with it?”
Thomas looked down to the bottom of his cup. He chuckled, but it was one wry push of air out of his nose. He brought the cup to his lips and, with a swift flick of the wrist, emptied it. Thomas placed the cup on their table and leaned back, crossing his arms, mirroring Prudence.
“The towns you’ve been to are mere extensions of Sungarden,” he finally said. “This is the real world.”
It was her turn to keep still.
“Hillcove is just one of many. You think everything is colors, flowers, large buildings with golden roofs? Guess again, Pru. Sungarden is not the paradise you think you know.”
“Sungarden is your home,” she mumbled. Her voice started failing.
“Sungarden is a home, but it’s not mine. Outside, it’s squalor. People are hungry. They live in conditions that no one in your beloved city would wish upon someone. Misery that your father caused!” That last part was a direct accusation. Saying it made him flinch. It looked like he’d let his heart speak and regretted what he’d just said.
Prudence had tears in her eyes. Just seeing the anger that flared in Thomas’s eyes made her stomach hurt. Hearing his sour tone scared her. She wasn’t afraid of him but of the truth his words may hold.
Denial was a better alternative than facing it. Prudence rose to her feet and stared the stableboy down.
“Don’t you speak of my father this way!” she shouted. Heads instantly turned to them. “My father does so much for this country, you should be thankful!”
Thomas scoffed and stood in turn. He pointed at her. “Your father is a greedy bastard who squeezes everything he can out of the poor. Sungarden is not a paradise, it’s a blood city!”
Prudence gasped. Her fingers covered her mouth but didn’t touch her lips. She was frozen, shocked by what Thomas had just said. She couldn’t let him say those things—those hurtful things. But she couldn’t stop him either. The mere idea that she could no longer reason with him made her want to run. Maybe running was a better alternative to this staring contest with the boy who was supposed to be her best friend. How could he talk to her like that?
Prudence seized her cloak no matter how wet it was, put it on, and took off in a flash. She didn’t care for Thomas calling out to her, begging her to wait. She was focused on one single idea: getting away from him.
“Wait!” Thomas shouted, following her outside.
The rain poured, its constant rustle diminishing every other sound. He was able to catch up to Prudence. He seized her wrist and made her turn around.
She faced the stableboy, who had left his cloak inside.
“What do you want to say, Thomas?” she also had to shout to be heard. “That the rumors are true? That my father is an evil overlord who doesn’t care for the good of his people?”
People talked. In the streets, the markets, in the corners of the city. Prudence had heard rumors of rumors that her father wasn’t the man she’d hoped him to be. The man who sheltered her, who was supposed to protect her. Sungarden was her beautiful home, her sanctuary. Was it all a lie? Her entire world slowly crumbled, petals of roses withering as though the very concept of her home was fading.
“I’m sorry I said these things, Pru,” Thomas confessed. His voice was genuine. “Coming here with you stirred some things up.”
“Oh, so it’s my fault?”
“I didn’t say that. I mean… If anything, it’s your father’s fault.”
Prudence scoffed. She looked up to the sky, blinking rapidly to avoid raindrops in her eyes because they were already filled with tears.
“Why do I not know about this?” she murmured, more to herself than anyone else.
Prudence, the little lady who had spent her entire life within Sungarden’s walls—the beautiful lady who was sheltered and groomed like a sick little puppy; that was how she felt then. That was how she had always felt. She had to be watched, surveyed, escorted everywhere she went. Her list of forbidden places was at least ten times the size of the list of locations she was allowed to visit. Was this the reason? So that she wouldn’t see what was truly going on? The misery her father caused…
To hell with it.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?” she asked Thomas, looking at him straight in the eye, but it was more of an accusation.
Thomas opened his arms in a sign of peace. “It’s not my part to tell.”
“Why did no one tell me before?” she shouted.
“You’re the lady!” He shouted back. “And you’re still a child.”
A scoff and a fist were what Thomas deserved right now, but Prudence only granted him the first. “And you’re barely any older than me, so what’s your point?”
“People won’t tell you because…what can you do about it, huh? You’re sixteen! Two years ago, you were still playing with dolls. What does the misery of a country mean to you?”
Enough! She took a step closer to him so she could shout in his face. “It means everything! One day, I’ll have to lead Sungarden. Maybe all of Daltain. How am I supposed to do that if my reign is based on a lie?”
It was clear that her point had come across because Thomas was at a loss for words.
“You could have told me,” she cried. “If the rest of the country is like this village, I would have liked to know. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Would you really want to know?”
“Yes! People should stop trying to protect me from everything, especially you!”
His eyes went dark again. “Well, you brought me here to protect you, so here I am, doing your bidding, Milady.”
What was that tone? Why was he acting like this? Enough was enough for good. Prudence spun on her heels, responding to Thomas’s insulting words with a sway of her cloak. She marched away, heading straight for the stables.
“Prudence, wait!” Thomas shouted with a delay as if he’d just realized that his words could have done damage.
She didn’t wait. Instead, she accelerated the pace. She wanted to get away from Thomas as fast as she could.
Prudence reached the stables. She untied Flip’s reins, led him into the rain, and mounted him. Just like that, with a firm push of her heels into his flank, Flip set on a random course. Prudence was gone in the dark of the night.
* * *
It was dark—too dark for her to see anything anymore. She’d run off into the night carelessly, letting her anger drive her out of the village and into the trees. It wasn’t even anger at this point. It was a deep sense of sadness, like when someone says I told you so, but the thing they told you makes you feel miserable. That was how Prudence felt then. Tears drowned her face. Flip was strolling aimlessly, waiting for Prudence to give a direction. She hadn’t changed their course for hours.
She was exhausted. It was the middle of the night. The rain had stopped, but the precipitation that soaked through left her freezing. Her wet cloak wasn’t getting any dryer.
Stupid, stupid, stupid Prudence.
She’d probably die there. If she was not eaten by a wolf, she’d die of cold and loneliness. She should turn back; that was the only thing reasonable to do. But turning back meant facing the truth, and she was not yet ready for that. The truth that Thomas was right, and her father was indeed a bastard who sucked the life out of the people for his own gain.
Where was Thomas? She needed him right now. No, Prudence could do without him. She could keep going straight, she’d end up at the edge of the forest near Sungarden. She could travel all night and be home in the morning.
No, she’d die there.
She squared her jaw then, nodding to herself. She would make it through the night.
If Thomas were with her, he’d tell her to turn around and head back to the village. Where was he anyway?
Shouldn’t he have at least followed her? He was supposed to protect her!
How could she be thinking that? The last person she wanted to see on Tellest was Thomas. He’d remind her of everything wrong in the world, including her father.
But oh, she so desperately needed him. She had to admit it to herself, or she’d lose her mind to this stride between her sense of reason and her stubbornness. Prudence burst into tears, surprised that this was even possible after all the tears she’d shed already. She was cold, alone, angry, torn. She didn’t know what to do from that point, with the information that Sungarden was an outrageous lie. What could she do?
A distant howl pulled her out of her thoughts. Her heart skipped a beat. Her breath halted completely, as she listened for a sound. The idea of a wolf eating her suddenly became much more relevant than it just had been.
Another howl, this time closer. Prudence had no time to do anything, for that howl sent Flip on a wild course through the woods.
Hooves drummed like a stampede shaking the forest awake. Crows, owls, and buzzing insects revealed themselves. The symphony of nature matched her heart’s cadence. Prudence held onto Flip’s reins with all the strength she had. Behind her, animals pawing the ground echoed her horse’s steps.
Another howl resounded through the woods, but something else must have scared Flip because he reared up in fright, neighing loudly, throwing Prudence off-balance and kicking her off the saddle. Prudence landed on her back, her head missing a dead log by a hair. Flip took off, leaving a trail of round prints behind him.
Prudence rose back to her feet, stunned, not knowing where north was anymore. Panting, she was too scared to cry, and she had to run after Flip or risk losing her only chance at escaping wolves. But there were no howls anymore, only sporadic barks of a chase. The wolves were distracted by something else, something distant.
The lady ambled carefully so she wouldn’t make a sound. She took a few steps, holding her hand out to feel for her surroundings. It was so dark that she could barely see anything. She looked up, desperately looking for some light through the branches—perhaps the glow of the moon. But there was nothing. Nothing but her loneliness shadowed her.
Prudence wanted to fall to her knees and stay there until the sun would come up or the wolves would find her—one of the two—but she didn’t want to keep going. She felt so torn, both wishing to run back to Sungarden, to her father, and never seeing him again. Those contradictory thoughts whirled in her head and settled down her stomach like a thorn hurting her at each revolution. It was either keep walking or be paralyzed entirely.
She chose to keep going.
She walked in the direction Flip had fled. Perhaps he had stopped somewhere ahead, and she could find him again. She focused on that idea then, and it was enough to encourage her. She’d find Flip and find her way out of the dangerous place. She’d return to the village, apologize to Thomas, and finally get some sleep. That second part would be more challenging than tracing her steps, she considered.
The path quickly transformed as trees and tall ferns blocked her way. No matter where she felt, she had nowhere to go. How could Flip have gone through there? Maybe he took a turn. Maybe he managed to find a way through the ferns. Or maybe, and Prudence prayed it wasn’t the case, maybe the wolves had gotten to him—just one more fear to add to her desperation and dissuade her. The wolves could find her next! She didn’t care anymore. To hell with it. Her father was a tyrant. Sungarden was a lie. The people of Hillcove deserved better, so much better. She couldn’t give them that. What would the country look like anyway when she’d become magistrate herself? Would her city be a shiny jewel while the rest of the villages drowned in poverty? She wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Her father would have already sucked the life out of everyone else.
Prudence let herself slide against the wet trunk of a tree and touched the ground. She wrapped her knees in her arms and sobbed like she had never cried before. Nothing mattered anymore.
Was it the light that had awoken Prudence or the ethereal melody of a magical song? Prudence opened her eyes. She’d fallen asleep at the foot of an oak tree, her wet cloak keeping her warm despite everything else. The light captured her vision. It was like staring at a mirage, an illusion of something that would never exist, but it felt real. She blinked a few times to let her eyes grow accustomed to the shimmer.
After some time, she looked at the light, and she saw something else: a figure at the center of the glow. It was a white horse with hues of the brightest blue she’d ever seen. Was it…Flip? Flip’s ghost? No. This was something else. The horse didn’t look like anything from her world. But the most surprising fact was that she was not scared at all. She felt peaceful looking at the figure in the light. It was definitely magical, there was no doubt. The longer she looked at it, the more it enraptured her.
Prudence stood, her eyes fixed on the glowing horse. Once she was back on two feet, the horse took a moment to look at her, then it turned around and disappeared through the ferns. Prudence could still see its light clearing a path for her.
There was only one thing left to do: follow it.
She ran after it, increasing her pace as it did the same.
“Wait!” Prudence called out.
The horse didn’t respond to her cries.
She could have sworn the forest moved with the light, letting it pass, allowing her to traverse the thick foliage. The further she went, the more she could see. It took her a moment to realize that there was another source of light coming to life.
With one more step, Prudence was out of the forest. She stood atop a hill, the sun peeking over the horizon, its light shining above the distant city of Sungarden. It was a magnificent view, simply beautiful. It stirred emotions in her heart that she briefly had forgotten were there. One day, the city would be hers, and she could finally change it. She, as magistrate, would have the power to change the world. Prudence had never felt so certain.
She heard hoofbeats behind her. Sure that it was the glowing horse, Prudence turned around, smiling. She wanted to thank it for showing her the way, whatever it was. She wanted to befriend it, to ask it where it had come from and whether the forest was its home or not.
Prudence laid eyes on a serene Flip, with Thomas dismounting him. Thomas rushed to her and instantly wrapped his arms around her. She could hear his rapid breathing. Her head pressed against his chest; she could also hear the chaotic rhythm of his heart.
“Thank the gods you’re safe,” Thomas whispered.
Prudence gave into the hug once she realized the glowing horse was gone. She joined her hands behind Thomas. This time, she pressed him against her. She was suddenly so relieved that he had found her. She felt safer than ever in his presence.
“Did you see it?” she asked, smiling, wondering if Thomas had seen the apparition.
He’d probably think she was crazy if she told him that she’d found her way through the forest by following a glowing horse.
“Nevermind,” she mumbled. “You found Flip?”
She was about to walk to Flip when Thomas caught her hand.
“Flip found me,” he said, then his green eyes went a little gloomy. “I searched the entire forest for you, Pru. I’m sorry about what I said. I’m sorry I upset you and… You have no idea how worried—”
“Shh,” she hushed him, her index finger hovering by his lips. He was surprised by this spontaneous move. Perhaps Prudence still felt a little euphoric from what had happened just before. “I’m the one who should apologize. You’re right, you know, about my father. About Sungarden and the lie our people are told. But I’m going to change it.”
She relaxed her posture but kept her eyes on Thomas. The cautious look in his eyes changed to something else, something more eager.
“You’re still so young, Pru,” he said.
He was going to say more, but her voice barred his way.
“I’m not a child anymore, Thomas.”
“I know,” he said with a sigh. He examined her, head to feet, like he was analyzing her. Something else lurked in his gaze. Something Prudence couldn’t quite figure out. Was it…pride?
“Within a few years, I’ll have more responsibilities—more control over the country. I’ll make sure change happens, no matter what my father decides.” There and then, Prudence made her first vow as future Magistrate of Sungarden and Daltain.
Thomas greeted her with a warm smile. He placed his hands on her shoulders and expelled a deep breath. He pursed his lips, looking into her eyes. He hesitated to say or do something, but he held her gaze for as long as she did.
“The sun’s up,” he observed, his eyes moving to Sungarden. “We should head home.”
Prudence nodded. Yesterday, she was a confused, heartbroken mess. Now, she was confident, sure that her life had meaning. A newfound purpose. Looking at Thomas, she felt her heart flutter. Things would be difficult, challenging, but he would be there for her throughout it all. She knew that from deep within her core. Thomas had always been there for her, and she knew he would never leave.
* * *
It felt good to be back in the palace. Prudence sat on the ledge of her window and gazed upon the city she loved so much. Even from there, she could hear the shouts and rattle of merchants closing for the night. Prudence had pretty much slept all day after returning to the palace. Her plan with her handmaid Amelia had worked rather well. Her father hadn’t even noticed her escapade. Plus, he’d been busy with more pressing matters, nothing of Prudence’s concern anyway.
The sun was about to set. The golden rays settled on Sungarden’s roof to truly give it the appearance of, well, a sun garden. What a beautiful place… Though, after the previous night, Prudence couldn’t really appreciate its beauty anymore, knowing that it stood on the flimsy shoulders of its people. What could she do? What would she do next? Waiting for her time to become magistrate just wasn’t enough. After some sleep and pondering on the squalor of Hillcove, a grim village full of gentle souls, she realized they didn’t have the luxury of waiting for someone to fight for them. She had to do something now. She’d find a way.
Someone knocked on her door. Prudence, startled, rose to her feet.
“Who is it?” she asked.
Her heart bounced in her chest a little hearing his voice. She hadn’t seen him all day and already missed him.
Thomas gently opened the door. He stepped inside her chambers carrying a leather bag and some piece of clothing looped over his arm. He handed the latter to her.
“What’s this?” Prudence wondered, unfolding the farmer’s dress that was about her size.
“Well, considering the last one’s still wet and covered in mud, I thought I’d get you a new one.” He went back through the door. Before closing it behind him, he addressed her one more time. “Put it on and meet me outside.” Now there was a smirk stretched across his face.
“W-what?” Prudence stuttered. “Now?”
With a nod, Thomas closed the door. Prudence looked at the dress, confused, then at the mirror next to her, then back at the dress. Was she really about to do what she thought she was about to do? It was almost dark—she’d need to take her secret passage if she wanted to go outside. Thomas knew this, so he’d probably be waiting at the right place. She couldn’t believe she was even considering eloping in the night again without even questioning Thomas or anything else. Prudence smiled. Those nights of chase and blood coursing fast through her veins were something, weren’t they? They symbolized her youth, vigor and consolidated her friendship with Thomas, the stableboy with hair black as night, more and more each day. Prudence quickly slipped into her dress and headed out of her chambers, passing guards without being seen, rushing toward the secret door in the armory. From here, she could access a hidden passage that led to the gardens below.
“You said you wanted to change things, right?” Thomas queried as he and the lady stepped out of the garden and into the streets.
“First, tell me where we’re going!” She sounded severe, but the smile on her face disclosed her eagerness to know more about Thomas’s plan.
They hurried along, Prudence barely able to keep up with him.
“We’re going to an inn on the upper side of the city,” Thomas responded. “There are some people who want to meet you.”
“Some people? Who?”
“That’ll become clear soon. All in due time.”
“Thomas, wait!” She halted her steps. “Which people?”
He was enjoying every bit of this, wasn’t he? The mystery, leading her across the city in the dark, driving her a little crazy. His usual smirk was back.
“People who also want things to change,” he finally replied.
Prudence’s heart took a leap. Where was he leading her? Did he know people he wasn’t supposed to know? She couldn’t believe it. Her best friend, the boy—man—she’d known for almost all her life made less and less sense to her. She was seeing a whole new side of him, a hidden side, one that made her heart flutter even more.
What did she see now when she looked into those ocean-green eyes of his? She saw a young man with fire and tact. She saw someone who had the strength and courage to fight for what was right. Who was he affiliated with? Who were these people he talked about like some sort of secret cabal?
They arrived on the upper side of the city, silent as the night, passing only a few pedestrians who traveled home. They were unnoticed, unheard. As they neared the inn, he circled around, leading her toward the rear of the building. In near silence, he opened the back door to the establishment.
“That’s shady…” Prudence commented.
Thomas stretched out his hand, inviting Prudence to walk into wherever the door led. It was dark and damp, and there was just a tiny bit of creaking floor before a set of stairs going down appeared.
Prudence took a few steps before turning back to Thomas.
“You’re coming with me, right?” she asked cautiously, an eyebrow raised in concern.
“Of course, Pru.”
His warm voice brought comfort to the intriguing situation.
Prudence walked down the stairs slowly, the floor creaking some more. She could hear voices coming from downstairs. And there was…music. Laughter, chuckles, glasses clanging. The sound coming from wherever the stairs led was familiar in a sense. It reminded her of Hillcove’s inn.
The stairs ended in a small chamber lit by a single torch. To their right was a velvet curtain, dark blue with silver filaments, like a sky full of falling stars. A woman opened the curtain, startling Prudence. When she noticed the lady with her chest heaving and lips parted, the woman laughed a crystalline laugh. Her lips were red as roses, and her eyes green as emeralds. She wrapped her arm around Thomas’s middle and gave him a full kiss on the cheek.
“It’s been days, stableboy,” she said, her honeyed voice matched her bee-stung lips. “And you finally brought your lady along.” She smiled at Prudence.
She must have been just a few years older than Thomas. Her attitude slightly annoyed Prudence, especially because her hand was still around the stableboy’s waist. Was it…jealousy that Prudence felt? Who was this woman anyway?
“Pru, this is Marilyn. She’s…” He seemed to be hesitating about her title.
Marilyn didn’t let him say more. She invited Prudence to shake her hand, which the lady did, hesitantly, like she wasn’t sure what she was even doing.
“It’s Miss Marilyn. Welcome to the Forbidden Crown, Milady,” Marilyn offered with a coy smile. And with that, she slipped through the curtain, leading Prudence and Thomas inside.
Brown leather couches in cubicles with varnished tables smelling like cedar oil was the first thing Prudence noticed about the place. Other than the people—ordinary men and women with their eyes fixated on her and Thomas—everything else seemed to come out of a lousy brigand tale. The place was like the hidden lair of a pirate king. In the back was the bar, and next to the bar was a woman who looked just like Miss Marilyn, except that she wore a headpiece complemented by black lace and she played the cello.
Everybody fell silent once Prudence and Thomas stood in the middle of the room, and even the music stopped. One man who looked quite familiar stood from his cubicle and approached them. He wore pants and a black tunic over a white linen shirt. He looked like some kind of official, perhaps. His smile revealed his teeth, and he gave Thomas a brotherly hug, tapping the young man’s back like he wanted to get something out of his throat.
“Ah, Thomas! You made it!” the man cheered. He turned around and presented his friend to the crowd. “Listen up, everyone, drinks on me tonight!”
People cheered with him. Many of them stood up to greet Thomas, shake his hand or hug him. It was like they all knew him and had missed him so much. They passed Prudence without looking at her. She recognized some of them, and now, she even recognized the man from the start of this reunion. There was the baker, Judith. The palace’s blacksmith, Marcus. The jeweler, the flower girl, the farrier, some farmers from outside the city walls, and even the court physician. And lastly, the man in the black tunic, Gerald, the magistrate’s accountant.
When Gerald returned to his seat, Prudence noticed his companion, a younger man too hairy for his own good. She could swear she’d seen that man too before. Maybe at her birthday celebration? No, that couldn’t be…
Thomas accepted a drink from Marilyn in a silver cup. He brought the cup to his lips, everyone looking at him, and took a long sip. After that, he addressed his audience, but not before pulling Prudence by the waist, closer to him.
“My friends,” he began, then cleared his throat before saying more. “I’m glad we could all meet today. This is Prudence, as you all know.” Everybody listened to him. “She’s ready.”
Prudence frowned. She wanted to ask, ready for what? But her voice wouldn’t follow. She was too confused to say anything, wanting to learn nothing more than what the place was and why all the people were here.
Thomas continued. “Sungarden has drawn far too much blood, has ruined too many of us. It’s time to stop meeting in the dark and come to the light. We shall no longer be an urban legend, a story the nobles—no offense, Gerald,” the lad interrupted himself.
“None taken,” Gerald said with a soft wave of the hand.
“A story the nobles tell to scare their children,” Thomas resumed. “We shall become a truth, a movement. The magistrate will finally heed our existence.” Thomas turned to Prudence and smiled. “And we won’t do it alone.”
She raised her eyes to him and finally found her words again. “Thomas, what is this place?” she asked, whispering. “Who are these people?”
His hand settled around her waist, and he made her face the crowd. “This, Prudence, is the best guarded secret of Sungarden. This is the rebellion.”
Shivers crawled down her spine. She wasn’t shocked by the news nor afraid. She was just…intrigued. So, the rumors were true. The same rumors that mentioned her father’s cruelty spoke of a band of insurgents plotting against the regime. Those were mere stories, she’d always thought, stories they tell anyone who dared oppose the magistrate. But the stories were true. And here she was, in the underground tavern called the Forbidden Crown, surrounded by people who were very real.
“Are you sure about this, Thomas?” Gerald, the accountant, asked, looking at Prudence with a cautious glare. “She’s his daughter…”
“She’s nothing like him,” Thomas assured him.
Gerald relaxed his shoulders and his gaze softened. “As you’ve always said.”
“Prudence knows the truth, and it infuriates her. There’s no one else better than herself that can explain.” Thomas turned to her again. “Are you ready to change the world?”
“I don’t understand,” Prudence stuttered. “What do you want me to say?”
“Tell them how seeing Hillcove made you feel. Tell them what you told me. You want to change Sungarden? This is where it starts.”
Prudence shook her head. “Thomas, this is a lot to take in.” She looked at their audience, everyone who expected her to say something. They knew she would be there. They must have discussed it with Thomas before this meeting. Otherwise, they would have never let her, the magistrate’s daughter, enter the place. They trusted Thomas. That much was obvious. What did they need her to say? It was almost like severe stage fright had silenced her. Were they expecting her to open her heart to a bunch of strangers, just like that?
“I saw Hillcove,” Prudence said and swallowed. “Seeing it made me realize the lie I’ve been living. I always thought my father was this righteous man who had accomplished so much. Looking at the beauty of Sungarden, I always thought the rest of the country was just as beautiful.” She straightened her posture, the words coming to her, inspired by how they looked at her and listened. Opening up was much easier than she’d have thought. “But I was wrong. It’s all a lie. I thought I’d wait until I’m magistrate to do something, but something needs to be done now.”
Silence fell. She expected someone to respond to what she’d said, but no one did. Instead, they kept on listening to the echoes of her words, attentively. Maybe they expected her to say more.
“So, if there’s anything I can do,” Prudence began, breaking the silence that had turned awkward. “Let me know. I’m ready.”
Now it was like she was seeking their approval. Perhaps she was. Maybe she needed to prove herself first, and that’s why they were all looking at her that way. They trusted Thomas’s judgment, but did they trust her? But by the gods, that feeling, the one that spread through her veins at the idea of joining a rebellion, it was both enthralling and frightening.
Gerald was the first to respond, but not before he offered a welcoming smile. “Thomas was right about you, Lady. I can see it in your eyes. You have a fierce destiny ahead of you.”
“T-thank you…” She didn’t know what else to say.
“You are still young, dear,” Judy, the baker, said with a warm voice. “But having you joining us would make you one of our greatest assets. You will be our eyes, our ears. You have access to information none of us can get to.”
“Are you sure you are ready for it?” Gerald asked. “Are you ready to betray your father for the cause?”
Prudence took a moment to think. She expected her answer to come after a few pondering thoughts, but it didn’t. Was she ready? Hearing the words spoken aloud, whether she’d be ready to betray her father to make Daltain a better place, made them real. And the reality fell hard upon her shoulders. Thomas must have noticed her change in demeanor, because he brought her closer to him.
“You don’t have to make a decision now, Pru,” he soothed. “Now you’ve met us, and one day, perhaps we’ll meet you.”
“I’ll need a moment,” Prudence said, raising her eyes to meet his.
“Granted, Milady.” He smiled.
At that moment, when the sound of the cello recommenced, and people returned to their evening delight, Prudence saw something more in Thomas’s eyes. Perhaps it was a reflection of what she was feeling at that instant. Thomas was more than a friend, he’d always been. A guardian, a protector, and now, a partner—a partner in crime her father would have them both hanged for. But it didn’t scare her, as long as Thomas would be by her side. She wanted to hug him, to thank him for all the times he’d watched out for her. Maybe it’d soon be her turn to watch out for him.
Prudence returned home in the night, accompanied by her faithful companion. Thomas left her at the secret entrance in the gardens. He turned around and walked away. Before she’d take the passage, Prudence watched Thomas vanish into the dark. She was seeing the real him now, and the thought of that made her heartbeat just a little faster. Her breath had stopped for a brief second. It was too dark to see his face, but she could swear he was looking back.
* * *
Hooves thumped behind her, but it was not aggressive, not rapid, or harsh. It was soft, gentle, and the grass beneath them was untouched. Prudence sat on a large rock atop the hill, looking far into the horizon, past her home, the city of Sungarden. She watched the sun descend in peace, undisturbed. The place offered the most beautiful view she had ever seen.
Prudence turned around to face the white, glowing horse that had joined her here. She had not forgotten it, the steed that had guided her in her time of need. It stood next to her and gazed upon her with honest blue eyes. Its light cast a strange yet comforting shadow over her and wrapped her in its warmth.
“I was hoping to see you again,” she confessed.
A few weeks had passed since her journey to Forsynthia and back. A few weeks had passed since she had seen the glowing horse. She’d returned here a few times, wishing to find it again. She was unsure as to exactly why, why she was putting so much effort into finding the apparition. Perhaps she sought comfort again, or perhaps she needed its help, one more time, to find her way.
“Do you speak?” she wondered.
“Sometimes.” The horse answered, and Prudence instantly rose to her feet, in utter surprise. Its voice, his voice, sounded distant and far and mixed with other voices. It was soft and wild at the same time. But most of all, it was beautiful, like a symphony that could charm someone forever.
“Who are you?” Prudence asked the glowing horse.
“I am Enabharr.” The horse didn’t say more.
“What…what are you?”
“I am a horse.”
Prudence chuckled awkwardly. “I mean… You’re obviously not a normal horse. What are you exactly?”
“I am a horse. Though something tells me this answer doesn’t satisfy you.”
Touché. “I’m sorry.” Prudence shook her head to focus. “I just…wanted to thank you for guiding me through the forest last time.”
“You are most welcome.”
She hesitated for a moment until she finally dared to pose her burning request. “I may need your guidance again.”
The horse didn’t move or make a sound.
“I don’t even know why I’m here,” she confessed. “But something inside me just told me to come to you. I was hoping… I just want to know why that could be.”
“You seem troubled,” Enabharr deduced.
“There’s just so much going on.”
She didn’t know why, but she felt like she could talk to the creature without judgment, that she could tell him all her feelings, and he’d help her sort them out. Was it crazy? Was she imagining things or looking for answers where there weren’t any?
“You carry a burden,” the horse said. “And you think you can rid yourself of it here, at the place where it all started.”
Prudence gave no answer.
“I can’t guide you on the path to your destiny,” Enabharr said.
“I know,” she retorted. She suddenly felt foolish for coming here, for hoping a glowing horse would help her find the light.
“But I can tell you one thing.” Enabharr paused. Prudence was all ears. “Being uncertain doesn’t mean you are lost. It is a sign of wisdom that you don’t wish for the wrong decision to be made.”
“But how do I know which decision is right?”
“You won’t until you take it. Only those with the gift of foresight could tell you this. Sadly, you and I both are no such beings.”
Prudence looked to her feet, letting Enabharr’s words settle in her mind and make sense. She wasn’t further than she’d been an hour ago.
Her shoulders fell, and she cleared her throat, looking back at the glowing horse. “How do I know which decisions to make, then?”
“This isn’t a question for me,” Enabharr responded. “It’s a question for you.”
Looking at Enabharr was suddenly like staring into a mirror with only yourself to see. Prudence figured out why she had ventured there again and again. It wasn’t to ask the ethereal horse for guidance. It was to find it within herself.
“So, I’m supposed to make a decision that could impact thousands just by following, what, my gut?” It was hard for Prudence to accept that she needed to find wisdom within herself rather than in this mystical apparition. The stories of wise spirits in the woods that could help one find their way were just that: stories.
“Isn’t that how all decisions are made?” Enabharr asked. “Do you think kings and queens choose their paths because they know where they lead? We are all playing on the same Lords board, all with missing pieces. No one is ready, fully prepared for what the future holds. The point is not to make the right decision because you know it’s right. The point is to do the best you can.”
There it was: the wisdom of spirits in the woods. Prudence was happy to be back in the cliché again. She chuckled, knowing exactly how she’d tell this story to Thomas later.
And the thought of Thomas made her realize she had already decided. Because in her vision, she wasn’t seeing him in the palace or the gardens. She was there, with him, back in the Forbidden Crown, surrounded by people who dreamed of a better future. Her choice was made.
Prudence looked to the horizon and made her second promise: she’d become part of the rebellion, and she’d fight for the cause. Sungarden deserved better, and she’d do her best to make sure better happened.
When she turned around to thank Enabharr for his insightful words, the glowing horse was already returning to his forest.
“Wait!” She called.
Enabharr paused and turned his neck to her. Their eyes met, and Prudence saw a similar expression to hers just a second ago. Then it hit her. Enabharr was no wise spirit in the woods. He was, just like her, someone who needed guidance. Perhaps more than she did. She was unsure why the realization came. Maybe, somehow, they were connected, and she could now read into his bright blue eyes.
“You said being uncertain doesn’t mean we are lost. But what about you?” she asked. Her question faded into the silent wind.
“I am not lost. I’m just waiting until someone finds me.”
Prudence watched the glowing horse disappear beyond the foliage until she could no longer see his light. She felt for him. Something like loneliness seemed to be etched in his voice. She hoped that whoever Enabharr was waiting for would find him soon.
Prudence headed down the hill, meeting Flip, who had patiently waited for her at the bottom of the trail. She patted him on the neck before mounting him, sending him on a fast course toward Sungarden. She’d be home before nightfall.