Quiet, calm night. The silver moon shimmers. A dark river sleeps under a stone bridge. Small islands of stars scattered across the dark canvas of the sky.
The young traveler dimly sensed a threat in the cool air. He got out of the carriage. Ahead lay a gloomy bridge. Torches blazed on either side, illuminating the road. Suddenly, in the silence, they heard quick, echoing steps. Heels pounded on the cobblestones of the bridge. An echo echoed them.
The stranger groped for the cleaver in his belt. The steps approached. The girl ran headlong across the torch-lined bridge. Her long, black hair fluttered behind her back. A grimace of fear froze on her gentle, white face.
“Please help me!” She shouted. “Help…”
Her voice broke. She rushed forward, tangled in her own skirts and stumbling. The traveler managed to notice on her hand a gold ring with an amethyst.
The girl looked around fearfully. She was afraid to look at the sky. She wanted to run on, but then a huge black shadow covered the moon. There was a wild roar. A winged shadow fell on the bridge and part of the river. An unexpected gust of wind stirred the fallen leaves along the shore.
The frightened, pale beauty froze halfway, like a statue. The silhouette of a huge golden dragon stood out high against the black sky. Scales gleamed on powerful wings, a tail wriggling behind a sparkling hump. The monster’s aquamarine eyes sparkled with anger and fury.
And suddenly the dragon rushed down. Its strong clawed paws wrapped around the girl’s waist. In the next moment, he was already hovering high in the sky with his burden. All that could be seen was the relentless, smoothly flapping wings, the pure gold of the torso and head, and a tiny cloud of the dragon’s prey’s scarlet dress.
The young traveler lowered his eyes sadly. The coachman, sitting silently on the box, seems to have become accustomed to such incidents. And the young man could not help thinking. He did not have time to use the weapon. It wouldn’t have helped anyway. How good she is — a dragon sacrifice. But this time the dragon was wrong. Fate haunts everyone.
A tent of green foliage swirled overhead. The earth around it was blooming and fragrant. Pansies and primrose covered the meadows. The golden sea of buttercups stretched deep into the forest. The rising sun dazzled the eyes and transformed the magical flora. It is dangerous to enter here, but for the daredevils there are no barriers and laws.
Rose looked over with an admiring glance at the elderberry bushes and lush crowns of trees. Wild raspberries sparkled with dew drops. A piece of blue sky peeked between the tops of the pines. Elves usually live in such forests, but not everyone is destined to see them.
Rosa slung the gun over her shoulder. She shot great. The king himself taught her. And if he allowed her to carry weapons, then he would allow her to hunt in the reserved forest at the same time. It was not for the princess to wander unaccompanied in unfamiliar places, to communicate with commoners, and even more so to wear men’s clothes. But Rose did not care that the courtiers and masters would condemn her. Now she was thinking about her father’s ban. No one should step over the line and enter the forest.
This was the only prohibition for violation of which there was no special punishment. But people kept it. After all, the elves who lived in the forest should have punished the violator. And this is more terrible than dungeons and casemates. Until Rose met not a single magical creature on her way. Maybe the people themselves invented all these legends.
Rose walked quickly along the narrow, uneven path. Her long black hair fell over the red velvet of her caftan. Tall, leather boots were much more comfortable than women’s shoes. Trousers and a sling with a dagger made her look like one of those idlers who drop out of military service and rush in search of adventure, but more often find their own death.
The deeper Rosa went into the forest, the hotter and more suffocating it became. Such a change is against the laws of nature, which means that other forces rule more often. Perhaps a magician settled here, who dictates his conditions to the weather. Anyone who knows how to conjure has the right to subjugate rain, hail, and lightning, what can we say about the heat.
Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead, and the larynx was dry. The air became hot as in a pottery oven. And there is no brook or reservoir nearby. Rosa was about to turn off the path when she suddenly heard a broken cry. Someone desperately called for help.
Rose listened. The cry rang out again, now it was clear that it was coming from the thorny, bare bushes blocking one of the paths. What if this is just a joke of the invisible inhabitants of the forest? However, Rose, without hesitation, rushed there. The thorns scratched painfully. Rose skinned her hands, tore the sleeve of her caftan, and a red rag from it hung on a branch of a bush.
A strange picture opened before the girl’s eyes. At the top of the mountain there was a fierce struggle. The eagle attacked a helpless, crying child. The child screeched shrilly, but for some reason it seemed to Rose that his voice was not childish at all.
Shooting a bird from this distance is almost impossible, but Rosa was a well-aimed marksman. She had loaded the gun an hour ago, and she had no doubts about her abilities either. The girl concentrated, took aim and pulled the trigger. A shot rang out, an angry bird’s squeak spread across the skies. Rose missed. How can this be, with her dexterity. She pointed at the heart of the eagle, and instead only interrupted the wing.
Rose fired again. Now right on target. The eagle fell heavily down. Good game! But the princess was more worried about the child. Had she not been around, the predator would have ripped him apart.
Climbing the mountain, Rose ran to the rescued person, and she froze in place. It turned out to be not a child at all, but an ugly little troll.
At that very moment, a dark figure stepped onto the path. The tall gentleman’s white, beautiful hand carefully removed the red patch from the bush. A scrap of princess clothing is a valuable trophy. Especially if another cunning plan is brewing in an insidious head.
Meanwhile, the dumbfounded princess stood on the top of the mountain, rooted to the spot, and looked with surprise at the rescued. How could she take this brat for a child, because the skin of the troll is gray, earthy, and not at all pinkish, as is the case with human children. Instead of a child’s, a lace shirt on a shaggy little body hung, as if on a hanger, a fancy, silvery robe. Furious, sparkling eyes stared at Rose.
“Eagle!” suddenly croaked the troll, waving his hand in the direction where the dead bird was supposed to lie under the mountain.
At first, Rose did not understand what he was trying to explain to her. In addition, the troll uttered several phrases in a language that people did not understand.
In vain she only ruined the eagle, thought the princess, because everyone knows how harmful these trolls are. The most valorous knight would not have saved them for any price, but she fell for the bait, believed that she was doing a good deed.
“He’s alive,” the troll yelled, gesticulating hard at every word. He did not recover from fright, but did not forget how a huge bird of prey circled over his head.
“I swear I killed him,” Rose said, her tongue tangled with emotion. She looked down to be sure she was right, but another disappointment awaited her. There was no eagle at the foot of the mountain. True, the nettles were crumpled in that place, as if recently there was something large and heavy in it.
“Couldn’t he take and fly away with a hole in his heart and a bullet in the wing?” Rose looked inquiringly at the troll, who struggled to get to his feet and spat from the mud. The eagle gave him a good thrashing.
“I think I should thank you,” said the furry, hunched dwarf without much sign of joy. Trolls are said to have neither generosity nor thankfulness. Why did one of them suddenly decide to excel?
Rose never ceased to amaze him with his appearance and manner. Trolls look different. And this one is so weird. On another occasion, the girl would just laugh, but one must be careful when dealing with such creatures. Just expect a catch from them. Rose feared that the troll was about to throw a ball of hot sparks or lightning at her. But the undersized friend behaved with restraint. Straightening to his full height, he barely reached Rose’s knee.
“Come on!” He commanded and trotted down the mountain with such ease, as if stepping on a flat road. Rose barely kept up with him.
“You probably want to ask why I didn’t use a spell to slay the eagle?” the troll guessed Rosa’s thoughts.
The princess nodded.
“Alas,” replied the troll, “I have no right to conjure against vassals…”
“Whose vassals?” Rose asked immediately.
“You’d better not know about this,” the troll cut her off. “By the way, I’m really grateful to you. Do not think that I don’t value my life.”
His voice became kinder. Now they were walking through the poppy field. The forest was left behind, cliffs towered in front.
“Lucky for you,” the troll announced, stopping at the entrance to the gloomy cave. “If not for me, the forest dwellers would not have let you live.”
He spoke all the time in human language, but carefully selected each word, as if afraid to make a mistake. In addition, in his speech, Rose caught an accent that was not found in any of the languages she knew.
The troll entered the cave. The girl followed him unquestioningly, but kept her gun at the ready. What if it’s a trap?
It took a long time to wander in the dark before Rose found herself in the cave treasury. So the troll hadn’t deceived her.
“Choose what you want!” He suggested.
Rose looked around. Bars of gold, nuggets, colored stones lay all around. So this is where the trolls live. Rose touched a pile of silver coins, passed gold dust between her fingers.
The troll himself offered her to take whatever she wanted. Poor people dream of getting rich this way. But Rose was not one of the lovers of easy money. It is also dangerous to accept gifts from a dubious person.
“Thank you, but I wasn’t hiring you and you don’t have to pay me,” Rose said. However, a mischievous light appeared in her emerald eyes. She cannot admit to the owner of the cave that she is afraid to accept his gifts.
The troll was silent, dumbfounded by the honesty of a mere mortal. Even kings are waging wars over different precious glass. But so that a beautiful, human girl does not have any selfish thoughts? This news seemed incredible even to a magical creature.
“Wait!” shouted the troll, noticing that Rose backs away to the exit. “Take what you find at the cave entrance. Otherwise, the forest will not let you go.”
Rose remembered his words only when she got out of the semi-darkness into the sunlight. What can we talk about if there is nothing around, except for grass and a bush of wolf berries. The princess was about to walk past, when she suddenly saw that a wreath of blue forget-me-nots was hanging right on the bush. A charming little thing. The only pity is that by the end of the day the flowers will fade.
The girl took the wreath and put it on her head. Although it did not match Rosa’s attire, it was the perfect adornment for her long, silky hair.
Rose found her way back easily. The sun was at its zenith. The scent of flowers and herbs enveloped the forest. At times, Rose thought that someone was watching her. She felt the gaze on her back. Someone’s hot breath burned the back of her head. Someone’s hands reached out to grab her. But when she turned around, she saw only a deserted path and birds of paradise flying from branch to branch. The wreath will guard its mistress until the last forget-me-not fades in its wonderful weaving.
The drawbridge was lowered. Rose entered the castle unhindered. The courtyard was pleasantly animated. There were sentries on the walls, a falconer was in a hurry. The rosy maid got water from the well. The footmen whispered in the corners. Only the minstrel stood alone with his viola. He must be fired from his job, otherwise why should he be discouraged.
The plump herald ran up to Rosa and bowed to her, almost touching the ground with his forehead.
“Her Majesty is waiting for you in her apartment!” He announced solemnly. Why did the main sloth of the castle suddenly become so compassionate. He used to sleep all day in the attic, get out in the evening and continue nodding at the royal reception, and then go out for a mug of ale with the grooms. He was kept in the service only by the grace of the king. And today he got up before noon, fussed and worried. He seemed to have been replaced.
Rose went up to the Queen’s private quarters. Luxurious rooms occupied the entire second floor. The richness of the environment alone indicated that Queen Odile was loved by everyone, including the king himself, which is very rare in modern times.
The bedroom and boudoir were empty, and in a small closet someone was singing softly. There, in front of the window, sat the royal spinners in a circle. The spindles whirled rapidly, a thin thread slipping between skillful fingers. The spinning wheel was spinning. Rosa gazed at the women at work, but they didn’t even raise their heads to greet her. They obeyed only their mistress.
Rose walked on into the bright room. There was a chessboard on the table, ivory figures lying nearby — the game was not over. The queen loved this fun, but always played only with black pieces. Often she and the king spent their evenings on opposite sides of the table at chess. But in recent months, Rose’s father began to devote all his attention to politics.
Queen Odile stood at the very end of the room and looked at the colorful tapestry, where in a bright mixture of colors it was possible to make out only the stately silhouettes of unicorns and the orange plumage of firebirds. The drawings were so skillful that it seemed that they were about to come to life and sweet bird trills would fill the air.
Rose cleared her throat quietly to get attention.
Odile turned around and almost gasped. If she was faint of heart or prone to hysterics, at the sight of her daughter, she would faint. Even the kindest mother could anger that the princess does not follow court etiquette. This behavior is reprehensible.
Instead of making excuses, Rose just smiled. She stood in front of an elegant, graceful queen in hunting boots, a torn caftan, from under which the hem of a cambric shirt peeped out, and even with a wreath in her loose hair. By a happy coincidence, she left the gun outside the door.
During such audiences, the crowned mother restrainedly scolded her child for misdeeds, sometimes not neglecting the abuse. True, this did not lead to anything. Rose still behaved as she pleased. Let severity be the basis of any education, but the father will not allow her to be punished.
The princess expected her Majesty to burst out with the usual abuse, but she only quietly asked:
“Rose, what do you allow yourself?” At the same time, Odile’s eyes flashed fiercely, and a forced smile flew from his lips.
The Queen was extremely polite with everyone, but on occasion she liked to show her character. However, her beauty was worshiped like a deity. The bards praised an incomparable face in their songs. People took even the excessive pride of Odile for dignity. The only trait that Rosa inherited from her mother was beauty.
“I should have taught you how to spin and embroider so that you could at least do something,” Odile wanted to read a tirade about how a princess should behave, “modestly and at ease,” but Rose interrupted her.
“I know how to hold a weapon in my hands,” she said boldly, “to read books and talk to foreigners in their native language. Isn’t that enough?”
There was a long silence in the hall. One could even hear the hand of the clock beating a drum roll and echoing it in the empty, magical fireplace. The fire in it could flare up by itself and go out only after the order of the hostess.
“I’m afraid that a happy future doesn’t shine for you yet,” the queen said, and after a short pause, announced: “The war has begun!”
These words sounded gloomy and solemn. Rosa lowered her head at once. She knew that the kingdom was on the verge of ruin and the fighting would not lead to good. Last year, hail hit all crops. Several vassals rebelled against the king, for which they were severely punished. And when public executions of noble gentlemen begin in the country, the people consider it their duty to raise a rebellion. Of course, the neighbors are doing even worse, but this is not a reason to start a war. After all, you can lose.
“The northern neighbors have declared war on us,” Odile continued.
Rose laughed mirthlessly.
“Why, their kingdom is half the size of ours. It turns out that everything is not so bad.”
“You’re wrong! Their son led the order of knights — elves under circumstances which I will not expand on. If you were even a little more agreeable, the dispute could have been settled by marriage. But the prince does not need a bride who runs through the mountains with a gun and talks to the peasants. And now…”
She fell silent, unable to put her thoughts into words.
“What?” Rose asked impatiently.
“Everyone knows that you hang out with trolls!”
The news hit Rose like thunder.
“It’s not true,” she lied.
“What the hell are you wearing on your head?” Odile wanted to rip the wreath from her daughter’s head, but Rose drew back from her hand.
“I’m going to fight,” she said. “Only old-fashioned archers serve in the troops, and I know how to handle muskets and rifles. I will come in handy.”
Odile shook her head ruefully. Such a proposal was already beyond all limits of decency.
“No, my dear,” she said resolutely, “you are leaving today. Go to your orphaned cousin.”
“On her piece of land, which arrogant fools call vast possessions?” not without sarcasm asked Rose.
“But the battlefields are far from her chateau. It’s dangerous to stay at home. I decided to send you away in case of an enemy invasion.”
The queen rang the bell. The chamberlain appeared on the threshold and stared at the princess in amazement. Then he came to his senses, opened some kind of scroll and began to read out the names of the astrologers invited to the court. Their services were always resorted to before the outbreak of war.
Odile ordered the carriage to be pledged and ordered the most efficient servants to prepare the load. It seemed to Rose that she was being kicked out of her own house. There must be a more compelling reason behind such precautions than war. Terrible news is passed by word of mouth, but those who are particularly affected are often left in the dark.
It was getting dark. Rose went out into the castle courtyard, hoping to see the noisy crowd of servants again. It’s time to listen to their gossip. Commoners always speak bluntly. From them you can easily learn what you cannot get from the nobles under torture. Now Rose was interested in any rumors. If only none of the nobility came down here after her. In the presence of gentlemen, the servants are afraid to open their mouths to forbidden topics.
However, there was no one in the courtyard. The gray light still fell on the paving stones and jagged walls. How old is the royal castle? This question haunted Rose. Is there a more ancient and impregnable fortress in the world than this one?.. They say that there is, but everyone who sees it is doomed by the powerful owner of this citadel to a long and painful death.
A dull hiss broke away from Rose’s thoughts. An unbearable stench hit her nostrils. The princess could not understand what was the matter and where the servants had gone. By evening, everyone crowded around the well. And now there is no one around, only a cracked bucket is lying in the middle of the yard, as if it was left here on purpose.
Rose moved forward swiftly. Heat burst into her face, although there was no fire nearby. Then the heat gave way to cold. Rose wanted to get closer to the well, maybe the reason for all these oddities is hidden in it. The girl took two steps and froze in place. What she saw was incredible.
A thin, golden serpent with wings coiled around the well log. His slippery wet body coiled into rings so that the entire well was braided with sparkling ornaments. Two amethyst eyes stared at Rose. Fragile, golden wings fluttered behind the back. A shining halo surrounded the snake. Rose wondered if his skin was actually molded from gold. If so, it is worth a fortune, not counting the fact that behind the soul of the reptile itself, there are undoubtedly also witchcraft.
Now there was a breath of spring freshness from the well. Rose stared in fascination at the golden guest. The snake was graceful and beautiful, despite its unusual body length, it did not seem bulky or awkward. On the contrary, all movements were simple and sophisticated, like a gallant gentleman.
Smooth, as if doused with precious metal, the head jerked up. The narrow stripes of the jaws parted, revealing a red, forked sting. Cloudy saliva flowed from him, from which poisonous fumes emanated.
Rose, as if paralyzed, stood and waited, not knowing why. Glowing, purple eyes mesmerized from a distance. Smoke escaped from its oblong mouth. The girl involuntarily covered her nose with her hand. The stench that spread through the air was unbearable. Another minute, and the creature on the well would have breathed fire, but then a weak, human voice called out to her highness in the distance.
This voice sounded like deep, stringy sounds. Such is the song to the accompaniment of a viola in the mouth of a tired minstrel.
Sensing someone’s approach, the snake began to tumble, its slippery, sparkling body streamed like a ribbon along the frame of the well and disappeared into a round, stone hole.
Rose could not understand anything. In annoyance, she kicked the bucket lying nearby. It rolled away with a crash, leaving behind a puddle of dirty, green liquid, just like the one that poured from the snake’s sting. It’s good that the snake didn’t spit this poison in her face. In general, it is good that he retreated without burning half of the castle. But just what could this creature be afraid of?
The princess turned around. Not far from her stood the same sad minstrel whom she had noticed in the crowd during the day. He was thin and poor, like all free musicians. A pleasant, swarthy face was slightly weathered during endless wanderings. Short, brown hair was sunburned. The pale blue eyes contrasted sharply with the bright, oriental tan. The young man was about the same age as Rose, but a life full of worries gave his calm gaze senile or even magical wisdom.
A staid and silent boy, obedient to the fate of fate, seemed completely devoid of any human fussiness.
“Did you call me?” Rose asked.
“The carriage is ready, Your Highness,” he reported barely audibly.
Rose wanted to talk to him heart to heart, to ask about the reasons for his sadness and withdrawal. But she said nothing. Why etch other people’s wounds? She must go, otherwise the queen will get even more angry.
“Thank you,” Rose nodded. She looked with apprehension at the well and at that very moment the wreath, as if with an iron hoop, pulled her head down. Pain shot through her brain. You shouldn’t have taken the troll’s gift. There are only troubles from someone else’s generosity.
Rose plucked the wreath from her head. Almost all the flowers in it withered and withered. Quite recently, the petals were fresh and transparent, and now even the green leaves have curled up into dry lumps, as if someone had drunk moisture and strength from them.
“I’ll keep it as a keepsake,” the girl whispered. She felt that someone was invisibly nearby and hears her words. But the young minstrel interrupted these sensations mercilessly.
“You have to go,” he reminded her.
Rose sighed heavily. The hardships of travel await her. When the carriage starts to move, the mystery of the withered wreath and the winged serpent will be left behind along with the castle’s pointed turrets and the bizarre outlines of the fortress walls.
A small retinue was waiting at the castle bridge. Three guards, armed to the teeth, pranced on black horses next to a gilded carriage, tightly closed and curtained.
Groom opened the carriage door for Rose. The last crimson ray slid over the raised coat of arms and intricate carvings. In the next moment, the valley in front of the castle plunged into darkness, cold water flickered, filling a deep ditch.
A young footman ran up to the coachman. His worried face spoke for itself. Rose leaned out the window, wanting to know what had happened.
“Be careful,” the footman warned. He was instructed to report something important, to make a loud and pompous speech, but the frightened boy limited himself to just one phrase. The fatal words sounded quiet and scary.
“A dragon has appeared in the vicinity,” said the footman. The coachman silently crossed himself and checked to see if his sword was in place. Rose, watching this pantomime, immediately opened the carriage door.
“The Dragon?” She asked with undisguised curiosity.
The footman said nothing. He, like a toy, made a bow and rushed back to the castle, as if looking for cover.
The carriage started to move. The battlements and watchtowers were soon left behind. Rosa heard only the clatter of hooves and the rumbling of wheels. To the right of the road were dense, impenetrable forests, to the left lay wasteland. The borders are still far away. You will have to spend two days on the road, because the kingdom is huge, but if you look from behind the clouds, the world will seem miniature, the universe will appear as a tiny kingdom, and people are insignificant prey. And now the road runs like a thin belt between toy trees and flat saucers of rivers, and the luxurious carriage looks no bigger than a pea. Can the people galloping behind her see a huge, majestic shadow among the clots of clouds and night fog?
The wind sings in the heavens, the star rain scatters in the darkness, but does not reach the ground, but goes out in the air. Glittering sparks pour from the golden wings of the flying monster. The people have composed many fairy tales. From time immemorial, mankind has tried to explain the incomprehensible power of magic, but no one got to the bottom of the truth. Let the legends remain legends, and the truth is too terrible for anyone to know about it.
It’s time to forget about honor and valor. Knights of the noble blood also obeyed witchcraft. Magic has unlimited power. It’s time to remember the battle wounds, the oaths of the royal conclave, and the battle in the marble gallery. Time to remember betrayal, time to take revenge.
A FATEFULL BALL
Even in her sleep, Rose began to choke. Opening her eyes, she saw thick, gray smoke pouring into the carriage window. On the velvet sofas and walls, swirling, dense rings were already crawling. Her throat was tight like a stranglehold.
“Hey, coachman!” Rose shouted, but no one responded. The horses were racing at full speed, as if still hoping to overcome the dead zone. Outside the window, nothing was visible except a white, poisonous shroud. Something hissed and groaned on both sides of the road. No animal can make such terrible sounds, no fire can bring such a hellish haze behind it, which slowly spreads along the road, and strangles everyone in its fatal, implacable embrace.
The carriage rushed forward. The escorts barely kept up with it. Gold coats of arms and monograms served as the only beacon in the gray smoke. Suddenly the coachman pulled the reins sharply. The horses snored in fright and stopped.
The white veil faded and dissipated. The air smelled of burning, but breathing became easier. Rose opened the door and got out of the carriage.
If earlier wonderful landscapes were presented to the eye, then what she saw now could only be called primordial chaos. Before her lay the dry, bare ground. Not a blade of grass, not a puddle remained on the ground scorched by fire. To the left of the road was a line of smoking ruins. The wind stirred the ash heaps under the collapsed walls. Wooden buildings burned to the ground, only charred logs were still lying here and there.
Burnout was all around. A woman was sobbing in the ashes. Her loud lamentations were heard.
The guards, galloping after the carriage, exchanged glances among themselves, but were in no hurry to dismount and find out what had happened. Rose told the coachman to wait and walked over to the crying peasant woman. She kept sobbing and wiping her tears with the edge of a chintz handkerchief. She was wearing an old, homespun dress. Unkempt hair matted. The face was swollen and flushed with tears.
Rose didn’t know where to start the conversation. The woman hardly wanted to explain to anyone now. She did not even pay attention to the approaching princess.
“Tell us what happened here!” Rose asked with all courtesy. And since she accompanied the request with a coin, the woman could not refuse her.
“There was a village here yesterday,” she began to babble. “Now look…”
The peasant woman scanned the ruins with mad eyes and burst into tears again.
“Who caused such a disaster?” Rose found the strength to ask.
Instead of answering, the woman raised her tired, frightened eyes to the sky.
“It flew over the rooftops, spewing flames,” she whispered. “Its skin sparkled like the sun. One could go blind looking at it. No dragon can be so beautiful and cruel. I barely had time to hide in the ravine before it breathed fire, and our village burst out like a T-bar.”
Rose listened in fascination. She understood that the peasant woman had lost her mind from fear. In her words, one cannot distinguish truth from delusional fiction.
There was an unbearable burning smell all around. Embers hissed. Remains from the former buildings equaled the flooring of soot and ash. Usually, the enemy’s fiery arrows turn settlements into one huge funeral pyre, but Rose did not really believe in the fact that the flame was expelled from the mouth of the “heavenly ruler”. Of course, it’s not good to be such an atheist, because she personally watched the grandiose tricks of sorcerers who came to her father’s court. However, none of them was able to create a real disaster. All of them only created illusions, but did not harm anyone. It is possible that evil magicians also live somewhere, but they do not dare to act openly. Their territory is enough for them, they do not climb on someone else’s without need.
Rose thought about it and decided that the peasant woman was crazy.
“If at least one castle of the feudal lord survived here, then look for help there,” advised Rose.
“Yes, I need to go for cover. The fortress is not so easy to burn down,” the woman was delighted. “And you hurry to the shelter before it’s too late!”
She too harshly underlined the last words, as if warning the princess herself. Rose was not impressed. It was only on the way back to her carriage that she suddenly remembered the footman who had brought the terrible news and the golden snake. It is necessary to ask the retinue about this, but all accompanying persons are silent, like idols. Apparently, the guards received clear instructions from Odile not to enter into negotiations with the princess, whom they hide and take away in a closed carriage from some punishing, unknown force.
The small detachment set off again. The smoky shroud that enveloped the road and the stinking ashes were left behind. Soon the scorched forests and fields disappeared from view, replaced by the former fragrant nature.
The gentle voice of the lady-in-waiting was overflowing with nightingale trills. She was sitting on a bench by a flower bed and sang some kind of romance, accompanying herself on the harp.
Rosa noted to herself that Mara’s dwelling resembles a mirage. Its lands were small, but fertile. Their mistress was engaged in trade with overseas rulers and received considerable profit from this, but she did not keep troops with her. It’s amazing how the invaders have not yet turned their gaze to its tiny state. All of Mara’s entourage consisted of court ladies, young aristocrats and numerous guests who stayed with her for a year or two, and then were replaced by new guests.
It seems like a scandal broke out last year. Several distinguished guests disappeared without a trace. They were searched everywhere, but they were never found. Someone accused Mara of a villainous murder. Then this brave man died under strange circumstances, and her title, wealth and surviving friends became Mara’s protection from evil tongues.
The magnificent chateau was surrounded by a huge park. The gazebos were drowning in flowers. The gardeners were not visible. The main facade was decorated with intricate stucco molding. The atmosphere of joy and harmony was spoiled only by the windows hung with blackout curtains. It is unlikely that even a single ray of light could penetrate the heavy, mourning-colored material. Subsequently, the servants explained to Rose that their mistress does not like daylight.
Many of the guests were still rested. Rosa despised such laziness, but since her cousin preferred an idle lifestyle, then no one had the right to tell her. There was no one in the chambers draped in silk and multi-colored twill. Luxury accompanied a strange loneliness. It seemed that the inhabitants of the chateau hibernate all day and wake up closer to the night to get to a feast or carnival.
The young page accompanied Rose to a small bedchamber, claiming that all other rooms were already occupied. The girl with difficulty pushed back the heavy curtain and let the light into the room. Sunbeams immediately danced on the panels. A barely audible groan broke the silence, as if the rays of the day had burned someone who was invisibly present in the bedroom. Footsteps rang out, the traces of two small feet were imprinted on the fluffy carpet, and the door opened by itself.
Rose tried to shake off the obsession, but moans still came from the corridor. Obviously, the light caused unbearable pain to the invisible being. Has the cousin decided to put a spy on the princess? Not. The very guess seemed ridiculous to Rose. Mara knows nothing about witchcraft.
The bedroom became light and comfortable. The atmosphere of evil left her along with the invisible spy. There is hardly any room left for a secret passage or a sliding wall. The whole room was filled with furniture. There is an embroidery frame by the window. This item seemed completely useless to Rosa. She had no intention of doing needlework. The table with curved legs served as a decoration rather. Nobody thought of putting writing instruments on it. Nearby are a rosewood wardrobe and chest of drawers. In the corner stood a screen painted with pastoral scenes. A lilac canopy with silver trim hung over the colossal bed.
Rose brought about a third of her wardrobe with her. But even her clothes could not match the chic of this setting. Rose wanted to pull the comb out of her travel bag, but instead she found a wreath of forget-me-nots exuding a wonderful scent.
For a moment, the girl was numb with surprise. After all, last night she put a dried wreath with crumpled petals in this bag, and now the flowers are fresher. Dew drops were heavy on the tiny, blue cups. The troll’s gift regained its original appearance and gained new strength over a long night. Forget-me-nots needed neither food nor water, but at the same time they radiated tangible energy and created a protective barrier around their owner. By the will of the donor, they became a talisman.
Rose put the magic item on the table and went to the window. There was a great view of the park from here. The maids of honor played music in the oak alley. They will entertain guests with their flutes and harps in the evening. Water gurgled in the fountain. From a height, the shoots of petunias and gladioli appeared as a palette of bright colors. Peacocks walked across the grass, from time to time letting loose their colorful, patterned tails.
“Autumn is coming,” Rose whispered, addressing the void of air.
The girl pressed her face against the glass in an unconscious desire to get closer to the mother-of-pearl butterflies fluttering from flower to flower. Immersed in dreams, she closed her eyes and heard a terrible, disturbing whisper right above her ear.
“Don’t be afraid,” a quiet, heartfelt voice said, “the worst will come only in winter.
“What?” Rose perked up. She realized that she was no longer alone, that there was someone on the other side of the window. This someone is talking to her. The princess opened her eyes. Her lips parted in surprise, but she could not utter a word. Behind the glass hovered that flexible, coiled snake. Not even a snake, but a miniature dragon. His eyes sparkled with all the colors of the rainbow. The wings glittered, and behind them stretched in an instant the darkened celestial sphere. Rose waited for the intruder to say something else in her bewitching, melodious voice, but he was silent.
Rose pressed her hot forehead to the glass. She wanted to ask her mysterious acquaintance about something, but her tongue did not obey her. She reached out with her hand to the golden scales, and touched only the glass partition. Unreasonable tears choked the princess. She saw how white smoke envelops the sparkling silhouette and the serpent itself slowly escapes from sight, returning back to its magical world.
Outside the window was again a marvelous landscape. Butterflies filled the garden. Yellow lemongrass nestles on the window ledge. And the winged serpent was gone. Rose froze in place like a mannequin. An aching feeling of loneliness arose in her heart.
As soon as it began to get dark, the door to the room swung open noiselessly. At first it seemed to Rose that the figure that appeared on the threshold was surrounded by a black cloud and did not allow her feet in ridiculous, crimson shoes to touch the ground.
The vision vanished instantly. Mara strode into the room with a stubborn, arrogant gait. A dress embroidered with satin flowers and beads could not brighten up the pointed features of her face. On the contrary, artsy fashions added a repulsive arrogance to her shortcomings. The desire to stay on top in front of everyone has become a kind of mania for the mistress of this palace.
Mara shook a shock of red hair, the headband sparkled with the smallest emeralds, softening the bright redness of her hair.
Rose had to listen to enthusiastic greetings and compliments. Not a single word from Mara was sincere. The fire-haired cousin could boast of wealth, but not honesty. But she boldly poured out pleasantries. Her narrowed brown eyes wandered beside the sofa in the stone alcove and unpacked luggage.
“I’m glad you got here safe and sound,” Mara said, drawing out every word. Her chatter now resembled a chorus to some intriguing ballad.
“You know that several villages have been burned to the ground. And around the burnt earth a poisonous mist settled. The fauna wastes away at the behest of the dragon. Gnomes are hiding underground. The elves are more fortunate, they have holes. But the peasants are doomed to perish. Mara paused and gave her companion a sly smile.
“You have nothing to fear here, my dear,” she continued. “For those who are within the walls of my chateau, I guarantee complete safety.”
Mara walked over to the piled-up belongings in the corner and pushed open the lid of a massive wrought-iron chest. Rose did not even notice how it was brought in along with her own things. The heavy, copper-plated chest was completely unfamiliar to her.
“I want to give you a present,” Mara announced, and drew a sparkling ball gown from the copper void. The glitter emanating from the flowing matter dazzled the eyes. Rose ran her hand along the lush cascade of brocade skirts and immediately recoiled, as if she had skinned her fingers. A strange coincidence struck her. The dress was golden. After the peasant’s story, only the sight of gold could cause nausea and fear, and the reminder of a flying snake was identified with secret and magical darkness. What kind of inexorable fate could connect links in a chain of strange and exciting events?
Rose turned her gaze to her cousin. Now Mara looked like a pale moth. If it were not for the red plait of hair intertwined with a thread of pearls, then this arrogant lady would not be more beautiful than the deceased. Even in her heavy, smoky outfit, she looked splinter-thin. Long, tenacious hands gripped the gift like a deadly amulet. The garment was accompanied by a headdress in the same style.
“You should wear this to the ball tonight,” Mara said in a hushed voice. She handed Rose a dress and headed for the exit.
“At five to twelve we are waiting for you in the hall of mirrors,” she explained in an indisputable tone. Mara paused at the door. The light of the lamp fell on her face, outlined thin cheekbones. A deathly pale brow was covered with a rash of freckles, and her mouth curved into an avid, cruel grin. In the next moment, the cousin slipped out of the room like an ethereal ghost.
The door slammed shut behind her with such force that the hinges creaked and groaned. Each wall in this building resembled a living, mythical creature. Each window casement here had eyes that closely watched the newcomer. But as soon as one turned around and the walls turned to stone again, and the spirits living in them imperceptibly laughed at their accuser.
Rose stood in the middle of the room, clutching a gift, and shadows flickered and waltz around her. The gold brocade burned her fingers. The enchanted bedroom walls whispered among themselves.
Sharp beams of light danced across the polished table top. But the wreath was no longer on the table. Together with it, the otherworldly force disappeared, by order of the troll hiding in flowers and protecting the princess.
As midnight drew near, life awakened in the chateau. The guests dressed up and floated out of their chambers, as if resurrected from the underworld. If at the height of the day it seemed to the princess that this palace was uninhabited, now she could only be surprised at the abundance of dressed up and arrogant gentlemen crowding at the front stairs and passages. Footmen in colorful liveries pushed aside and fastened the curtains with ribbons. And outside the windows in all its splendor appeared the starry sky.
Sunlight had no right to enter the palace premises, and the night here enjoyed special privileges. Windows were specially opened for her, as if she was an honored guest and patroness of local entertainment.
Rose walked through the suite of rooms and found herself in a kind of gallery. Dim pointed stars gazed silently at the girl from both sides through the Gothic windows. No matter how much Rose looked at the dark firmament before, she had never seen such bizarre constellations. A terrible guess flashed through my head. The bizarre interweaving of stars condones witchcraft, which is why they seem ridiculous in comparison with other luminaries. And they appear exclusively over the dwelling of a sorcerer or a person against whom witchcraft is directed. So, in the chateau, someone is either initiated in the wisdom of the forbidden sciences, or incurred the hatred of an evil wizard and thus deserves a magical punishment.
Suddenly a cold, dank wind whipped Rose across the face. The princess was even indignant. Whatever tricks the sorcerers do, and winter winds should not be allowed to walk through the summer expanses. Rose inhaled the frosty air, and it burst from her mouth in warm steam. Steam floated across the floor and surrounded the girl’s figure in white clouds. But she hurriedly tore herself out of the white ring and walked away.
Miracles like winter winds in summer and frightening constellations usually don’t bode well. Rose was afraid that her hearing was about to pick up another vibration in the wall or a low, malicious laugh emanating from the void, but this time nothing of the kind happened. Where a company of people gathered, the self-willed walls instantly stopped whispering, as if they had turned into a rumor.
It was rather difficult to navigate in the luxurious maze of halls and guest rooms. Rose lost her way, turned into a narrow corridor and found herself in a dead end. There was only a rickety spiral staircase that led to a round, flaky door at the very top. Bolts protruded from the rusting railing. The steps creaked. And the dirty, shabby door was tight against the wall. Such squalor was inappropriate among the surrounding tinsel and lush decoration. Why was this staircase not repaired and the door not painted? Mara could buy any trinkets and jewelry, she could give her home a fabulous look, and she didn’t even deign to clean up one single corner in the palace.
On the steps were dry leaves and scraps of woolen cloth. The servants didn’t even bother to throw this trash away. Maybe someone brought here dried tulips and gnawed fish bones on purpose. All this was like some kind of mysterious ritual. Rose wanted to go upstairs and see what was hidden behind this door. She had already stepped on a shaky step, but then out of nowhere emerged two agile pages and blocked her path.
“Don’t go there, lady!” One of them whispered. His face looked like a boy of about seven years old, but his voice sounded hoarse and capricious, like a sick old man.
Both pages were delicate and fragile, like two wax candles. The loose sleeves of their suits dangled like torn sails. The strange green caps gave the boys an inhuman appearance. Mischievous eyes betrayed a bully, but at the same time the shifted, bushy eyebrows on the children’s faces spoke of the evil disposition of these guys.
Rose ignored their warning and wanted to step further, but the second page, with the speed of lightning, found himself a step higher than the girl and blocked the narrow passage.
“You can’t go there,” he croaked. His voice sounded even more disgusting than the first.
“Why?” asked Rosa, straightening up to her full height and showing by her appearance that here she is the mistress, and not some dwarfs.
Two kids in green caps immediately realized their mistake and forgot about the impudent tone.
“They have been waiting for you at the ball for a long time,” the first page sang in a sugary, honeyed voice.
His companion unceremoniously grabbed Rosa by the arm and pulled her away from the stairs. The princess barely had time to turn around to look at the mysterious door, kept like a forbidden passage to another world, before the quick pages carried her into another corridor, away from the temptation to reveal other people’s secrets. Rosa never ceased to be amazed at the insolence of these disgusting mischief-makers. How are they just kept in the service? Mara should be reprimanded
“Leave me alone!” Rose shouted at them as soon as the ballroom doors appeared ahead. She snatched her hand out of the firm, but far from friendly, grip and walked swiftly forward along the carpet. Her steps echoed in the confined space of the corridor. The lamps on the walls alternately went out, warning the approach of the girl. The candles in the candelabra were extinguished, and the beauty in the golden dress illuminated the approaching darkness by itself. Rose’s emerald eyes took on a feline shine in the shadows. Classic eyebrow arches curved over them. The shoulders of the princess were striking with whiteness and grace. The hair flowed in a dark waterfall from under the enamel hoop. Relentless rock hovered over a beautiful head. If a magician was here, he would have seen a slender, radiant lady hurrying to the ball, and the angel of death flies behind her, rustling with black wings.
A chamberlain stood at the sash doors with a list of guests. He smiled ingratiatingly. Flattery showed in his speeches.
Rose turned around and saw two little pages at the other end of the corridor. They boldly met her gaze and quietly, maliciously laughed.
The tall grandfather clock by the window showed a quarter to twelve. The chamberlain crossed out one of the names on the list, and the doors to the hall immediately swung open by themselves.
“It wasn’t without magic,” thought Rose. She spread the bucked sleeves of her dress and stepped over the threshold. The doors immediately closed behind her, like a prepared trap.
However, the ballroom was not much like a trap. Its high vaulted ceilings looked up into the sky. Stained glass was inserted into the bizarre windows. The light was crushed in crystal chandeliers. Music was playing. Dressed up couples flirted. The high society was entertained by jugglers and acrobats. At the edges of the hall were festive tables with food and wine.
Only the overwhelming size of the hall and the crooked reflections in the wall mirrors made an unpleasant impression on Rosa.
As soon as she entered, the musicians stopped playing. An ominous silence hung over the hall. Ladies and gentlemen now looked like suddenly put to sleep. Everyone froze in their former position and did not dare to move. For a moment, Rose thought she was standing among a forest of wax figures. Then a single admiring sigh broke the deathly silence that reigned in the hall, and all the ladies present sat down in a low curtsy to Rose. After them the gentlemen bowed.
Each of the guests tried to portray the highest courtesy, but no one dared to approach the princess. All their bows and curtsies resembled a well-rehearsed performance.
As the dance began, the guests’ colorful robes swirled like a whirlwind of autumn leaves. Rose walked around the hall, holding her gaze for a long time at women’s hairstyles and outfits. She has not seen such a variety of fashions and colors anywhere else. There were no knights or guards here, but dandies in tunics trimmed with colored piping feasted. Jewels glittered on the foreheads of young maidens. The older ladies had elaborate nets covering their hair. The crooked mirrors revealed fake smiles. Their distorted reflection illuminated the soul.
Suddenly, in the distance, a dull and clear beat of a clock was heard. An invisible pendulum whistled in time with them. Terrible, monotonous sounds seemed to come from everywhere: from every wall, from the floor and even from the ceiling, so that it was impossible to determine exactly where the clock itself was.
The fun stopped instantly. The guests backed away to the edges of the room, and only Rose stood in the very center, listening to every beat of midnight.
For the tenth, eleventh beat, and finally the last one sounded. It was like thunder. Echoing it, the walls hummed, the stained-glass windows rattled, the ceiling cracked. It seemed to Rose that the masonry was about to fall right on her head. She had to run, but a mysterious force bound her whole body, not allowing even to move.
The crowd of guests surrounded Rose in a ring. There was another crack in the ceiling. And suddenly, behind Rose, something hit the floor. A bass grunt, occasionally interrupted by a chest cough, filled the silence.
Rose felt that she could move again. She looked up and saw that there was a hole in the very middle of the ceiling. And behind someone’s back, someone continued to sniff and quack like an animal.
The princess scanned the crowd with pleading eyes. The guests’ faces were frozen in impenetrable expressions. Rose was afraid to turn around, afraid to see the one who was fumbling behind her. And suddenly gnarled fingers gripped the wrist of her hand. An eerie face with beady eyes and an aquiline nose peeped over Rose’s shoulder.
The huge, crooked mouth contorted into a grin. Rose tucked her skirts up with her free hand and wanted to dash away, but the black bird claws dug into her wrist so that she screamed. The circle of guests closed even closer around them. There was no exit.
Rose freed her hand and pulled back a little. Next to her stood a hunchback in a black cloak. He could barely reach the shoulder of an ordinary person, but in his dumpy, dense physique, remarkable strength was felt. The back was crowned with a lumpy, pointed hump. Long arms almost reached the knees. The vicious, ugly face broke into a grin every minute. A toothed crown with a ruby was pulled over his forehead.
“Here, I caught you, killer whale!” almost happily he bit back, but his eyes remained so ferocious that Rose involuntarily backed away.
The hunchback grabbed her wrist again, not allowing her to take another step.
“What do you want from me?” Rose almost cried.
“Don’t you yourself know?” laughing and coughing, he asked a counter question. “Forgot about the signed contract? The deadline has expired, I’m taking you with me.”
There was nowhere to wait for help. Rose was at the mercy of a vile monster, and the crowd looked at them indifferently. The air from the floor to the gap in the ceiling was now surrounded by an icy shimmer. Shiny molecules moved, joined, curved in lines. And so they outlined the transparent steps of a spiral staircase, resting against a gaping hole in the ceiling.
“Help!” Rose shouted, hoping that at least someone would save her. For a moment it seemed to her that Mara was standing in the very corner of the room and squinting as if she was nearsighted, but she didn’t think to go for help.
Rose tried to pull her hand out of her tenacious fingers, but the hunchback squeezed her wrist even tighter and stepped onto the first step. To the girl’s surprise, the staircase was not an illusion. The steps were hard and as slippery as ice. The ominous guide dragged the prisoner with him. Rose stumbled and fell right on the steps, but the hunchback pulled her hand so hard that she had to get up and keep up with him.
“I don’t know anything about the contract. I am not who you are looking for,” Rose pleaded, but he didn’t even deign to answer her.
It was a mistake. A terrible mistake. The princess was confused with someone else. She wanted to explain it, but the hunchback did not listen to her. And in the depths of Rose’s consciousness, another incredible guess emerged. It all happened to her because of the dress. Someone specially tried to get it into her hands. It was an identification mark for the sorcerer who dragged her along. His mysterious and intricate magic proved to be stronger than anything other wizards did.
He climbed through the hole and the stairs began to dissolve in the surging air masses. The steps melted in an instant, like ice floes in water. Rose made another desperate attempt to free herself, but a strong, hooked hand pulled her through the hole just before the last step vanished into thin air.
SINGER OF THE WIND
Rose looked around in amazement. Everything disappeared somewhere. There were no more intricate chateau cornices, no ornate facades, and no huge gardens. Instead of taking his captive to the roof, the gloomy villain took her to another space. It was a cleft between two worlds.
Behind the girl’s back were kingdoms, principalities and empires inhabited by people, and in front of them towered blue rocks, blocking mortals from entering the forbidden world.
Blue smoke snaked around the rocks, enveloped the abyss, almost touched the bubbling foam of the river. An aqueduct was thrown across it. A string of patterned, sturdy supports held his stone platform.
The blue rock ahead was shaped like a bastion erected by a shadow architect. Below, the river seethed and twisted in foamy waves around the pillars of the aqueduct, but could not reach the desired height. Rose looked down and felt dizzy. There, as in the palm of your hand, lay the ribbon of the river, entwining the whole country of sorcerers. It was not even a country, but a rocky island, fenced off by a fast, icy current. People called this river Silver because in the darkness its smooth surface shone with silver. It was impossible to wade or swim. It was enough to plunge into the water with just one foot, and it pulled the person like a funnel. Then the body melted into a frothy, liquid silver.
Where its water basins narrowed, arched bridges were thrown, but they were far from safe. Even the halo around the moon here took on an ominous red color.
Having dragged the girl across the bridge, the hunchback pulled out a copper cane from under his cloak, hit it on a flat rock, and immediately a crack formed in the smooth surface. She crawled up, then to the side, drawing some kind of triangular pattern. This drawing turned out to be a door. Someone opened it from the inside. Giant ugly hands grabbed Rose like a toy and threw her into the darkness. The door in the rock closed with a screech, leaving no slit for light.
The princess did not know how long she had to lie face down on the cold floor. But suddenly a torch flashed in the darkness. The flames whipped out dirty, iron bars and padlocks. Some figures moved next to them like shadows, smoothly and silently. Hands, unlike human hands, hugged iron bars. The rustle of long robes was heard.
Several more torches joined the first. They seemed to move through the air by themselves. One of them flew up to Rose’s face. There was no heat coming from it, and the wooden handle was free of any support.
Rose recoiled, and the torch flew past her, illuminating the slippery, slab of floor. Two pairs of hands grabbed Rose by the elbows, forced her to her feet and quickly dragged her along. Rosa made out figures in long robes, their heads hidden by masks with bird beaks.
A torch flew ahead and illuminated the gloomy corridors. From time to time he stopped and drew fire signs right in the air. Rose did not understand their meaning, but the figures in masks read the fiery letters in a whisper, and they immediately extinguished, leaving behind streaks of black smoke.
This hellish corridor will never end, the princess thought. “I will stay here underground and never see the sun again. I am a hostage, I am a victim of betrayal. Thoughts swarmed in her head. Assumptions, one more terrible than the other, hit the brain. The road into darkness had no end. I wanted to forget and fall asleep, but two gloomy guards dragged the captive forward, not allowing her to linger for a moment.
Rose was tired and weak, her eyelids were heavy and sticky, but it was impossible to sleep. Ahead, she saw massive, cast-iron doors covered with intricate ornamentation and bordered by an arc of glowing rot.
“What kind of place is it? What’s waiting for me outside the door?” Rose thought as she walked. Before she had time to cry out or whisper the saving word of prayer, steel hands pushed her into a spacious room that closed in a ring. It was a courtroom.
Wooden stands rose in rows one above the other. Above, under the very dome of the ceiling, there are several latticed windows. This means that Rose was no longer underground or in the rock, but in the very heart of the island of sorcerers.
In the middle of the courtroom was a low, iron stool. The figures who dragged her by force forced the princess on it, and they themselves stood behind her.
All around were people in long robes and cocked hats, motionless and speechless. Each of them seemed to be rooted in its place behind the wooden platform. Fierce eyes looked from pale, haggard faces. Spider fingers fiddled with yellowed parchment scrolls or simply tapped drum rolls on the table top.
Oil lamps filled the room with dim, orange light. The judge’s desk remained free, and the defendant was already sitting in her place. Rose looked around in horror.
Dozens of vile, embittered pairs of eyes stared at her. The size of the hall was overwhelming and oppressive. Here, the fragile figure of the princess in a golden dress seemed tiny. Disheveled hair covered her wounded shoulders. Suddenly a bright beam of light fell on her face. Rose perked up. There were shuffling steps behind her. She saw the crowned hunchback take the place of the judge on the platform. Its heavy, gnarled shadow covered Rose. An angry gaze rested on her face.
“Let’s start!” said the hunchback. His voice sounded like a thunderclap in the deathly silence.
At that moment, the cone-shaped window under the ceiling swung open and an eagle flew into it, flapping its wings. The window sash slammed shut. The bird sat down on an empty chair and screeched. Proudly folded behind the back, the wings no longer concealed the scarlet seam on the eagle’s chest. Rose recognized the trail from her own bullet and was dumbfounded. What was happening was like a nightmare. The bird’s wings began to grow and stretch. The beak was getting smaller. Feathers thickened, turning into black clothes. And now it was no longer an eagle, but another silent jury bore Rose with his angry eyes.
“Do you all recognize the convict?” The judge asked loudly, and many heads in black cocked hats nodded affirmatively.
“What can you say in your defense?” The hunchback’s menacing, accusing voice rang out again.
Rose involuntarily shuddered. A vibe of hatred and contempt emanated from everyone who judged her. They wanted to see someone else in the place of the accused, but at the whim of a mock-fate she found herself here.
The girl tried to mobilize all her courage.
“You are mistaken!” She said. Her own voice seemed weak and strange to her. “I’m not who you want.”
“Who are you?” The hunchback laughed deeply and disgustingly. “What are the names of your parents?”
“My father is King Christian, and my mother is Queen Odile,” Rose said. She wanted to add something else, but her tongue did not obey her.
Hearing her words, the hunchback jumped up from his bench, leaned over the podium and croaked:
“It’ a lie!
He flung down the judge’s gavel, rummaged through the papers heaped on the table, and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper with torn edges.
“You knew what fate awaited you,” he said, turning to Rose, “your lies will not soften the sentence.”
“Bring her closer!” ordered the judge.
The guards immediately grabbed Rose by the elbows and dragged her to the dais. The hunchback took out a quill from an inkwell and wrote a few more lines at the bottom of the torn sheet. Then he put it down and laid a long, heavy hand on Rosa’s shoulder.
The princess knew that now he was preparing to perform some ancient, witchcraft rite. She wanted to break free, but the guards held her tightly, not even allowing her to move.
“For a long time I have chosen punishment for you from the list of permissible, but none of them will pay off the sins you have committed,” the judge spoke again in a sparkling crown. “By agreement of our council, I have the right to resort to the hitherto forbidden punishment. The execution is canceled. Instead, I put the Swan Curse on you.”
Rose stared at him in disbelief. She didn’t understand anything. A triumphant guffaw echoed through the hall. Rose managed to turn around, but did not see a single juror. All the places were empty, only a screaming flock of gyrfalcons, hawks and other birds flew through the opened doors and disappeared into the pitch darkness.
“Let them fly away!” The hunchback grunted imperiously. “The ritual must be performed without unnecessary witnesses.”
He stared at his captive and began to whisper quietly some incomprehensible, meaningless words for a common man. The hypnosis emanated from him with a dark, strong thread and twisted around Rose. Rose looked into the burning eyes of the wizard, and it seemed to her that she was standing on the edge of a raging, fiery abyss. The princess was seized with a fever. Fainting approached her like a stranger wrapped in a dark cloak.
The hunchback drew a sharp, instructed dagger from his belt and cut one strand of hair from Rose’s head. A strand of black snake curled around the sharpened blade before the sorcerer lowered the dagger into a bowl filled with hissing, silvery liquid. Upon contact with the strand and metal, it immediately turned into a deep, black color.
Rosa watched the sorcerer’s actions in fascination. His words and gestures were incomprehensible to her. Here he covers the bowl with a piece of purple satin with bird heads embroidered on it. Then he pulls out a box filled with shimmering, silver pollen.
The girl made another desperate attempt to escape, but it was too late. The sorcerer poured the contents of the ominous box directly onto Rose’s head. Sugar dust covered her face. Thorny grains fell on the dress, tangled in her hair. Nausea rose in her throat. The eyes grew dim. A sharp pain shot through her left arm, as if someone had slashed a knife across the wrist.
At that moment, the guards released their prisoner. Loud laughter echoed through the gloomy void. Rose held out her hand. It was no longer a hand. The fingers extended into long swan feathers, the wrist extended to the size of a bird’s wing. Dizziness close to fainting did not allow horror to take over the mind during the transformation. The girl disappeared, instead of her a beautiful, black swan circled under the ceiling, trying to break free from the stuffy dungeon. The windows and doors were closed. The bird in vain rushed from corner to corner in search of a way out.
“And you will be a swan until the end of the century,” the end of the spell sounded gloating and solemn.
The hunchback removed all the ritual accessories. He reread the contract for the last time and hid it in a drawer. The swan, beating in despair against the glass of the high window, brought a smug smile to his face.
Meanwhile, sparkling feathers fell from the black wings. The swan slowly descended. The plumage disappeared, but the eye could not see the entire sequence of transformations.
The sorcerer stared doubtfully at the strange scene before him. Had he misread the spell? The condemned woman was supposed to become a bird forever, but a few minutes passed and she lost her swan appearance. On the floor, barely breathing, lay no longer a bird, but the old beauty in gold.
Rose propped herself up on her elbows. Her whole body ached after the transformation. The heart beat a frantic rhythm. The arms, which had been wings a moment ago, ached and bled. Overcoming the pain, the girl got to her feet. Bending under the weight of his hump, the sorcerer rushed towards her. Something flashed in his hand like a purple star. He didn’t say a word, but his gaze thundered with rage.
In the blink of an eye, he grabbed the victim’s wrist, preventing her from moving her hand and put a ring with a huge amethyst on her thin finger. Cold metal gripped the finger, almost burnt into the skin. Rose tried to remove the ring, but it seemed to adhere to her hand.
Meanwhile, the doors of the hall opened, releasing the head of the gloomy congregation and his servants, and slammed again. Wandering lights danced on the walls. Rose was left alone, among the empty benches and stands. Dark evil dwelt here. A quiet, barely audible whisper came from the silence.
“Let the dragon come for you!” someone whispered very close. Rose looked at her hand and realized in horror that the voice was coming from the glowing stone on the ring. All its facets shimmered, and in the dull violet depth a pale, tiny face flashed and disappeared.
The silence echoed with a hellish roar. It seemed to Rose that all the sunlight was concentrated behind a huge high window and eclipsed the night stars. But the sun couldn’t shine so brightly. It was not a fiery disk that lit up the skies, but a majestic, huge silhouette of a winged dragon, like magic, that appeared in the distance. The dragon was approaching. Fire burst from its mouth.
Rose couldn’t believe she was seeing him. Here he is, the heavenly ruler, the kidnapper of young virgins. From his roar the earth cracked and the heavenly heights tore apart. The rumble made Rosea bleed from her ears. The dragon’s fiery breath scorched the air. The walls were hot from the heat. It seemed to Rose that she was in hell.
Metal wings flapped continuously, and the girl thought that it was a hammer knocking on an anvil. An intolerable golden glow dazzled the eyes. A clawed paw scratched the glass on the window. But the dragon is too big for such a narrow opening. He can’t get in here. Rose began to faint. The ring squeezed her finger even tighter.
For a moment there was a saving silence, then a strong blow followed. The window and part of the wall shattered from his force. A waterfall of chips and stones gushed down. A powerful gust of wind tore at the girl’s hair. She lifted her head to meet the stern, flickering gaze of the dragon flying towards her.
Golden wings whistled through the air and caught the wind. These sounds were like a song.
Strong paws with long claws grabbed Rosa and easily, like a feather, tore her off the floor. A moment later, the dragon with its prey was already hovering high in the sky.
The island was left far behind, the Silver River from the height of the clouds seemed like a narrow, trembling thread, and the villages were scattered on the ground in cubes. Nothing could slow down the frantic flight in the sky. The dragon soared even higher, not releasing its prey from its claws.
Gusts of icy wind whipped Rose across the face. The earth was already out of sight. The cold light of the stars reflected in the dragon scales.
An arrow dropped from a bowstring does not fly as fast as this glittering monster. The dragon raced forward, flapping golden wings incessantly. The whistling wind enveloped them. Then he slowed down and began to descend, slowly and smoothly. Rose saw the land, like one airy snowball.
The dragon sank even lower, so that the sloping roofs of the village houses became visible. Residents poured out into the street and pointed their hands up. Some were shouting something, others rushed into the loose. Flakes of snow swirled in the icy air, blocking the look of fear on their faces.
The dragon sank very low and suddenly breathed fire. Rose covered her face with her free hand. The heat from the fire scorched her cheeks, but the flame itself did not touch her. But the roofs of the houses flared up like dry rods. Orange sparks spread to the fragile, thatched roofs of barns and dovecotes.
The peasants fled, but the flame overtook them like a living creature, hissed and grabbed at their clothes. The dragon turned sharply and erupted from his mouth another column of fire.
Rose was numb with fear. What will happen to her? Will the dragon throw her into this huge fire and fly away? But he did not even think about releasing his captive. Golden wings flapped gracefully and the dragon flew towards the forest, blackened in the distance. Rose gripped a polished, smooth claw larger than hers with a hand. She was afraid to fall and break, afraid to turn around and see the village engulfed in tongues of poisonous flame.
A round dance of patterned snowflakes circled outside the window. Hungry wolves howled in the thicket. The trees stood in a ghostly line. Their trunks were buried in the snow.
The small hut was warm and cozy. Smoke poured from the chimney. A fire crackled in the stove. The aroma of delicious food was in the air.
Rose woke up, and slowly her eyes began to get used to the semi-darkness. She lay on a round bunk, shaped like a deep-bottomed bowl. It looked like a fairy crib made from a nutshell. Rose warmed up and calmed down. There are only vague memories of the fear experienced.
Someone covered her with a soft blanket and put a pillow under her head. For a long time no one cared about her like that. The Queen would rather scold her than help her.
Rose tried to get a better look at the meager furnishings of the hut. She noticed the skin of a dead bear on the floor, a crudely hammered table and a couple of chairs.
A graceful, strong hand placed the lantern on the table. Rose closed her eyes against the blinding light. When she opened her eyes, she saw a beautiful, white face bending over her. For a moment she thought she was seeing an angel.
“Everything will be fine, dear girl,” came a quiet, male voice. “No one will offend you here.”
Rose could not take her eyes off the innocent, youthful face, from the cold, blue eyes. After all, the eyes are the mirror of the soul. And in those sad eyes, she noticed a strange reflection, a mystery hanging over them.
She wanted to ask the stranger who he was. She had seen him before in some kind of ghostly, terrible dream, and now he was there. A phosphoric glow seemed to emanate from his face. A pair of curls fell over his smooth forehead. Oh yes, those curls. They are so reminiscent of… Rose tried to shake off the unpleasant sensation, but could not. The obvious cannot be denied. This young man has hair exactly the same color as dragon scales. Even in the dark, they shine with pure gold.
“Am I sleeping?” Rose asked.
He shook his head silently. The wolf howl outside the window now resembled a lullaby. A faint, wavering light fell like a filamentous veil on the walls.
The golden-haired youth walked for a second to the stove, poked the ash with a poker, and then returned back to Rose. He thrust a pewter mug of steaming drink into her hands.
Rose took a sip. The hot liquid burned her throat, and a pleasant warmth spilled over her body. The aroma of roasted meat spread through the hut and made her feel hungry.
The snowstorm outside the window was getting worse. The wind howled monotonously. Singing, inhuman voices sounded in time with him in the trumpets.
“Winter!” Rose whispered. “Winter has already come!”
Only now she woke up from dreams and began to really look at the world. But what was the use of looking for reality in a world that in an instant acquired a fabulous gloss. In this transformed universe, anything could happen.
“What month is it now?” The princess asked.
“January,” came the reply.
“How long did I stay in the courtroom?”
“For the uninitiated, the days there fly like minutes. Sorcerers prefer violent entertainment. A child who has been imprisoned for six months is released as an old man. For a number of reasons, the entrance to the island is closed to ordinary people. In addition, very often sorcerers themselves cannot keep track of the passage of time in their possessions. They are lucky because they are immortal.”
The young man looked straight at Rose and smiled his cold, charming smile. Judging by his clothes, he was a nobleman. The blue camisole embroidered with gray pearls further emphasized the whiteness of the skin. And a sword with a silver hilt fastened to a sling indicated an aristocratic origin. According to the law, only titled persons and their eldest sons had the right to carry such weapons. Rose studied the chiseled profile of the young man for a long time before she decided to ask:
“Who are you?”
“Don’t you remember me?” He wondered. “Oh yes! I completely forgot. I’m branded now.”
He stressed the last word. The voice now rang with heartache. The right hand clenched into a fist in impotent rage and fell against the wall. From such a blow, the plaster crumbled, leaving a dent in the wall.
“I don’t remember anything other than a frantic flight in the sky and a flaming village,” Rose almost shouted.
With the sounds of her melodious voice, the old calmness returned to the young man. Only a rebellious fire lurked in his eyes.
“I didn’t want to submit to fate,” he said apologetically. “Everyone has their own fate in life. My mentors decided everything for me.”
“What are you talking about?” Rose interrupted him. “You also fell victim to the dragon?”
“Dragon?” he looked at her with such amazement, as if he had heard the name for the first time. For a moment, Rose thought that a black winged shadow flashed through his clear blue eyes.
A frightening silence hung in the room. Without support, the fire in the furnace went out. The coals were smoldering. One could hear the winter wind moaning and raging in the chimney.
“I am afraid,” Rose said under her breath.
The mysterious friend immediately hurried to her, took the empty mug and covered the princess with a blanket better.
“You need to eat and sleep,” he said, “and tomorrow we’ll decide what to do next.”
“Do you know what happened to me?” Rose ventured to ask.
He nodded in the affirmative.
“Do you also know the hunchback in the crown?” she immediately asked the second question.
“This is the leader of all who live on the island. When the darkest of the court sorcerers were driven out for their cruelty, he gathered them all under his banner. The hunchback rescued even the most dangerous sorcerers, sentenced to a fierce execution, so that they would serve him. He wanted to acquire such power and greatness that no master of shadows had. The closed island, shrouded in darkness, has become the refuge of all magicians who are ready to worship shadow and evil.”
Rose noticed that the narrator clearly knew more than he said aloud. If only she could read his thoughts, unlock the heavy locks and remove the fetters from the secret that enveloped this golden-haired head.
The food was surprisingly tasty. After the meal, Rose was drawn to sleep again. While she fell asleep, a gentle multi-string voice still sounded in the darkness, enveloping her in enchantment. She wanted to raise her leaden-filled eyelids and once again take a look at the stately aristocrat, who, like a statue, sat by the cooled stove and looked at the black ash as if it was reviving in his memory a long-gone pain and thirst for revenge.
The night is over. A cold dawn broke. Rose woke up and looked around the empty hut. The mysterious aristocrat is already gone. Without it, the meager interior seemed even more squalid. Only something sparkled on the table. The girl jumped up from the bunk and ran to the table. There was a wallet full of coins, and a short note that she could take the money for herself.
So the golden-haired youth was not just a dream or a spirit. This is evidenced by a piece of paper covered with even beaded handwriting and a purse with money.
She can’t go back to Mara. And in her native kingdom, the war has already begun. Rose did not know where to go. Plus, she was afraid of the dragon’s wrath. What if he goes after her? She didn’t even know who snatched her from his claws. Or maybe the dragon himself left her to die in the winter forest, and the young nobleman found her and brought her to the hut.
There was something strange and mystical about this beautiful young man. Since he knew all the ins and outs of sorcerers, it means that he himself knew how to conjure. If you believe the legends, then some mortals are related to elves, fairies or even dragons. After all, he could be one of them and scare the monster with his charms or use family ties.
The small hut was most likely intended for a gamekeeper. But whose forests are these? Where to find a guide who will lead her out of the thicket. As soon as Rose thought about it, the glass in the window snapped. Someone’s jaws snapped. Is there a wolf wandering around the hut? However, instead of a wolf’s face, a luminous face with two amethyst eyes peeped into the low window. Rose immediately recognized her familiar snake. He found her again.
The door opened by itself, as if someone had opened it from the outside. The snake’s tail, shimmering with all the colors of the rainbow, slid over the threshold, lifted itself off the floor and waved gracefully, as if beckoning.
The princess wanted to take a blanket with her, but honesty did not allow this. It’s enough that the stranger left her a purse full of gold. You also can’t stay in someone else’s hut for the whole winter. Rose mentally said goodbye to her mysterious companion and ran out into the frosty morning.
The snow sparkled so brightly and dazzlingly that it hurt the eyes. The icy air burned her nostrils and throat. Between the trees, covered with frost, lay a flat path, as if someone had specially cleared it after a snowstorm.
A light ball gown, unfortunately, did not save her from the cold. Frost chilled to the bone. Rosa was already thinking about whether to return to the hut, when she suddenly saw that the same winged handsome man was hovering between the trees right in the air. The serpent coiled in rings so that it resembled a gilded chain on an invisible gate. Its wings flapped quickly and often, so that the whole serpentine body gently swayed over the snowdrifts.
Then the serpent changed its position, straightened like a string and disappeared around the bend in the road. Rose ran after him, hoping that he would lead her out of the forest. She quickly ran after the flying kite, but could not catch up with him. Fluttering wings and a flying ribbon tail showed her the way. But there was a respectful distance between her and the guide.
Apart from them, there was not a soul in the forest. Even the wolves are hiding somewhere. If the fair-haired aristocrat left along this road, then the snow had already covered the tracks.
Rose began to lag behind her fellow traveler. She tried to run faster, so as not to lose sight of at least the golden glow, rapidly flying forward. Snow crunched, brocade skirts painfully whipped the princess on the legs, but she did not stop for a moment.
Soon a gap appeared between the trees. The kite slowed down a little and slowly flew into the snowy clearing. A two-story tavern with a colorful sign towered proudly over a small pond covered with ice. Rose rushed forward across the clearing. Halfway through, she stopped and turned around to thank her guide, but that was already gone.
It got colder and colder. Lightly powdered snow. Rose wrapped her arms around her shoulders to keep warm. Her outfit was in a deplorable state. The puffs on the sleeves are crumpled, and snowflakes are stuck in her hair.
Rose knocked on the tavern door. She was afraid that in this form she would not be allowed to spend the night. However, the hostess immediately recognized the girl as a noble lady and was gladly ready to fulfill any of her orders.
As soon as Rose expressed a desire to buy warm clothes, the hostess recalled that there were things in the upper room that she would be ready to sell. There were, however, several chests with cheap clothes. Rosa bought trousers, boots and a lined camisole that looks more like a jacket. She tied her own dress in a knot. It was not possible to remove the ring from her hand. It froze to the skin so that Rose could no longer feel it. But the stone on it faded and faded.
Rose looked out the upper room window. A blizzard began. Snow, like a white shroud, covered the entire visible space.
Fate is insidious and whimsical. Until recently, life was easy and calm. And now the existence of the Rose has been clouded by three mysteries. A flying serpent, a powerful golden dragon and a mysterious youth with an angelic face. She didn’t even want to remember the incident in the courtroom. The words “Curse of the Swan” sounded like a terrible hum in her head. Rose shivered chilly. She breathed at the window and with a trembling finger drew the outline of a swan feather on the misted glass. This symbol reminded of how difficult it is to be a defenseless bird in a flock of hunters — sorcerers.
Loud, booming voices sounded below. Apparently, new guests have come to the tavern. Rose came out of the room and began to descend the side stairs, trying to keep in the shadows all the time. Precaution today was not superfluous.
Some of the newcomers had already started to play a marching song, others were quarreling with the hostess, others drank in silence. Rose leaned over the railing and saw a dozen soldiers camped behind an oak table in the corner. All were armed to the teeth.
The eldest, apparently the head of the detachment, struck the table with a gauntlet and demanded to bring a barrel of the strongest wine. The hostess immediately hurried to the cellar, and Rose went down a few steps. Maybe she can slip out the door unnoticed. Rose did not want to get involved with drunken warriors. Two of them were already pestering the young maid.
Suddenly one of the soldiers looked up from the beer mug and noticed Rosa. His eyes narrowed angrily as his hand reached out to the hilt of the sword. Only now the girl examined the coat of arms of the enemy kingdom on his cuirass.
“Look! It’s a princess!” He shouted. “She must be captured alive!”
His comrades-in-arms immediately understood what was the matter and also grabbed their swords. Now every second mattered. Rose almost knocked down the hostess who arrived in time and jumped out the door. This time, the princess was lucky. The enemies left their horses unattended. Rose untied the first horse she came across and jumped into the saddle. She was an excellent rider and could get away from any pursuit.
In peacetime, stealing a horse was punishable by death, but during the war, everything was allowed.
“Catch the princess!” shouted all the same soldier, but when his comrades climbed on their horses, Rose was already rushing through the forest at a fast gallop.
The blizzard intensified. Snow and wind lashed her face. Rose fell to the bow. Her hair flew like a black banner behind her. How quickly the enemies identified her. The compassionate neighbors must have appointed a reward for the capture of the enemy princess.
Behind her there was the sound of hooves, voices and threats in unison. Rose spurred her horse to break away from the chase. Because of the raging blizzard, it became difficult to drive, but Rosa did not stop until a fork in three roads appeared ahead.
Something strange was happening beyond the line lined with small stones. On the two roads going left and right, a blizzard was spinning, and on the middle road everything was calm. Spruces and pines stood at its edges, like fabulous giants guarding temporary peace. Even the snow did not dare to cross the invisible border.
Rose didn’t have time to think. She turned onto the calm middle road. Traveling along it will be much easier than fighting a storm. But instead of obeying, the previously pliable horse whinnied in fright and reared up, almost throwing the rider off his back.
However, Rose held the reins and forced the animal to move forward. The snowfall is left behind. Finding himself on the forbidden path for a blizzard, the horse rushed forward. She rushed without stopping, without any prodding. However, the pursuers did not lag behind either.
Above the treetops lay a clear azure sky. Snow glittered here and there. There were no wolves or other predators to be seen around, and nevertheless the horse began to snore in fright and began to resist.
Rose plunged her spurs into the horse’s flanks and made it gallop across the frozen lake. Sparks fell from under the hooves, but the ice did not crack. The brave rider looked back. She was able to buy time. The enemies are a little behind. She jumped off the horse, secured her bag better to the saddle, and checked to see if there were any weapons in the saddle bag.
Maybe under the weight of a whole detachment, the ice on the lake will break. No bellicose cries were heard yet. Only someone’s rapid breathing broke the silence of the forest. A ringing, almost musical whistle resounded over the treetops.
Rose stumbled and fell, black hair covered the snow with silk. The ring on her hand shone dazzlingly, and a terrible, huge figure hovered in the sky among the winter azure, as if it were all molded from gold. It sparkled dazzlingly, although the sun was not in the sky. The golden dragon, its wings, claws, head were all golden, but the eyes resembled a terrible secret, as in fairy tales about the castle of elves. Rose shuddered inwardly, he found her again, like death the color of precious metal. A terrible scream broke the frosty silence, and everything was quiet. The deadly pursuit from the warring world of the two kingdoms also fell behind.
And suddenly a silvery, rich sleigh stopped next to her, strangely, she did not even hear how they drove up, although the snow crunched. The aura of nightmare emanated from the sleigh, although they were anywhere, the royal ones would not be compared with them. Thoroughbred white horses in a harness beat impatiently with their hooves. Their luxurious manes and tails were shiny, their eyes sparkled wildly, and flames seemed about to burst from their nostrils. The bridles jingled, and the ringing of bells echoed them. Rose froze in horror and saw that the same young man was sitting in the sleigh. His golden curls scattered over a velvet cloak, his face was striking in beauty.
“Let’s go, Rose,” he invited, they won’t catch up with you.
He bent down and held out his hand to her. The skin on the back of the hand was a phosphoric whiteness, but there was a striking defect — a thin gold plate implanted into the arm where the vein should be.
Rose was numb with surprise, but the radiant, hypnotic gaze made her obey. She climbed into the sleigh and settled down on the satin seat. The driver whipped the horses. They snored viciously and trotted forward.
The young man signaled to Rose’s steed. He, as if spellbound, bowed his head, as if he were a man and obediently trotted after the sleigh.
There was a crackling of ice and muffled curses from behind. Rose looked around. There, among the sharp ice floes in the water, her pursuers splashed. They managed to reach the middle of the lake before the thick crust cracked. They could not get out of the lake. Uselessly they clung to the ice floes, their hands sliding along the smooth surface, and heavy armor pulled to the bottom.
The sled rushed forward, leaving deep furrows behind and billowing waves of snow splashing in its path. The chime of small bells accompanied them all the way.
Rose turned to her savior.
“What’s your name?” Plucking up courage, she asked.
He looked at her with a strange gleam in his eyes, as if deciding whether to tell her his name or not.
“Edwin,” he finally answered. Maybe it was his soft, calm voice that had such an effect on her that the name seemed familiar to the princess.
The further they went into the forest, the more beautiful the dense thickets on the sides of the road became. Rose looked at the snow-capped fir trees, at the squirrels jumping from branch to branch. She did not succeed in seeing the driver, occasionally waving his whip. All that was visible was his coat, sewn from fox tails.
“Why did you save me?” Rose asked after a long silence.
Edwin carefully draped a fur-lined cloak over her shoulders.
“Why?” He echoed. “How could I leave you in trouble?”
“How did you know that I was in trouble?”
This time he said nothing. However, the cheerful ringing of bells did not stop, the frisky horses continued to neigh. The small bird livened up the frosty forest with their singing. Bullfinches pecked at rare rowan berries. One bright red cross pecked at a pine cone.
“Where are we going?” Rose tried to start a conversation again.
“To the castle,” the companion answered shortly.
“You mean there is a castle in this wilderness?”
Edwin looked at her with surprised, twinkling eyes.
“There should be a castle,” he explained in the same laconic way. “What kind of state is it without a castle?”
“What other state?” Rose asked in a whisper. The unknown frightened her the most.
The attendant lowered his head sadly.
“You want to know too much,” he chided.
“No more than I’m allowed to,” Rose immediately retorted. “Everyone has the right to face their fears. After I was not even allowed to make excuses, it is not surprising that I am afraid of making a mistake. You are not the Golden Sovereign to chastise me.”
He was not even offended. On the contrary, mischievous sparks flashed in his eyes.
“You don’t have to be a flying monster to crush people’s hopes,” he said with secular nonchalance. And yet there was something in his words that it made her blood run cold. Some kind of invisible magic enveloped Edwin. In his manner and strange modulation of his voice, inhuman power was guessed. One gesture was enough for the distrustful, fearful tit, as if bewitched, to fly off the branch and sit in his palm. He stroked the yellowish head, and the bird chirped happily.
Now his hand is normal again. As if there was no plate inserted into the flesh. Rose studied Edwin for a long time. Even in the light of day, he looked like an unearthly creature. He sat next to her, real, alive, and at the same time remained distant and unattainable, like a radiant image of a saint in the corner of a darkened picture.
“We’ll be here soon,” he said, letting go of the titmouse. It chirped goodbye and soared into the air. Edwin followed her flight.
“How do you do it?” Rose could not resist.
“To command animals and birds.”
He just shrugged his shoulders, making it clear that he himself could not explain it.
“Who are you?” The princess gasped. The amazement and fright that sounded in her voice. gave this question an almost mystical meaning.
“You want to know not only about this,” Edwin warned the next questions, “you are interested in who really is a humpbacked sorcerer? Where did the dark power come from over the vaults of the chateau? Why were you tried for other people’s crimes, and how did you manage to escape punishment? And, after all, you want to know who the Wind Singer is.”
“Wind Singer?” Rose asked in surprise.
“He is also called the Golden Lord. The dragon has always been revered and feared. He keeps humanity at bay, and the fairy people submit to him. This zwergs called the whistle of flight a song. When the dragon’s wings cut through the air masses, then it really can be called the Wind Singer.
The forest in the white lace of snow was left behind. The sled was rushing along the narrow road. Rose did not notice how dark it was. A minute ago it was day, and now the horn of the month was silvery in the black sky. The snowdrifts rose like a single wall over the edges of the road. Now one, now another snowflake flashed with a bright fire, like precious stones.
The charioteer whipped the horses mercilessly, and they rushed forward with an arrow, in spite of their fatigue.
“Look!” Edwin ordered, pointing forward.
Rose looked up and saw the valley. Whirlwinds blew over her. The carpet of fluffy snow glittered as if a myriad of small diamonds had been mixed with it. And in the very center of the snow-covered valley stood a gloomy and majestic castle. Even from here one could see impregnable bastions, semicircles of observation openings, towers resembling chess rooks.
The horses ran even faster. The fortress, which adorned the snow with a dark crown, attracted them like a magnet. Rosa herself gazed with admiration at the outer wall, which encircled the entire grandiose structure with a stone ribbon. The loopholes of the powerful barbican gaped empty. The lowering grates lifted by themselves, allowing the sled to rush through the gate and, letting it pass, immediately returned to its former position.
Torches blazed brightly in the castle courtyard. An unusual palisade is located near the walls. Rose shuddered, noticing that each stake was crowned with a severed, human head, or what was left of it.
The horses beat furiously with their hooves. Rose jumped out of the sleigh and wanted to stroke the nape of the most beautiful snow-white horse.
“Caution!” Edwin warned. He was already standing behind, stepping up silently like a shadow. “They are not horses at all and, besides, they are very ferocious.”
The horses calmed down a little, sensing the approach of their master. It seems that apart from him and the driver, they no longer obeyed anyone. Even after a long journey, these extraordinary animals still had so much strength that they could smash the whole city over the stones. How wildly and ominously their eyes sparkled in the bloody glow of smoking torches. How they longed to break the bridles and trample under their hooves anyone who met them on their way. But they were afraid of Edwin. What could scare them so much in this handsome, seemingly fragile youth. Is that his equanimity, the complete absence of human feelings in the huge blue eyes and the proud bearing of the prince.
The most cocky of the horses grinned viciously at Rosa. Then he turned a plaintive, obsequious glance to his master, as if wishing to warn about something. More consciously than hearing Rose caught three words, alternating with horse snoring.
“She’s your enemy!”
“Take them to the stable,” Edwin ordered to the driver.
Rose went up to her horse, which was rubbing fearfully behind the sled, and untied the knot with its meager belongings from the saddle.
“Let’s go to!” Edwin took her hand and pulled her toward the tall, cast-iron doors covered with intricate ornamentation. The door ring was attached to the copper head of a lion, with its mouth wide open and empty eye sockets.
The doors opened smoothly, without the slightest creak. Behind them lay a gloomy hall. But as soon as Edwin stepped through the threshold, all the candles in the numerous candelabra flashed as one. The magical world of ghostly mirrors, purple carpets and silent sculptures appeared before Rose. The marble goddesses stood in the shadows. Tall stained-glass windows shimmered with all the colors of the rainbow. Pictures and portraits hung on the walls in heavy, patterned frames. A wide front staircase led upstairs.
It was not only wealth and luxury that amazed. Simply, everything here seemed to be alive. Emerald bats hid behind paintings. The sculptures sometimes changed positions and curtsies. Magic was dormant in every corner. All the shining magic of this castle was subject to only one person — its mysterious, golden-haired master.
The chimes announced the approach of midnight. At the last blow, Edwin perked up. He scanned the lobby and the closed doors with an anxious gaze, as if expecting an intruder.
“My time is running out,” he whispered under his breath. “In a few minutes I must leave, otherwise the irreparable will happen. If you only knew what ties I have with the rooms of this castle and the empire that stretches beyond it.”
There is nothing but dense forests, Rose wanted to say, but for some reason she kept silent. She ran up the stairs after Edwin. They walked through galleries and covered passages, past columns and knightly armor whitening in the dark.
Edwin opened the door of a room, lit all the candles in it with a wave of his hand, and turned to look at Rose.
“Stay here tonight,” he suggested. “I’ll be back soon and try to explain everything. You are safe in my castle, but outside of it, death awaits you. If you leave now, then the winged enemy will find you, wherever you hide. You attract him like a magnet.”
Edwin’s quiet, threatening words frightened, and his figure, frozen in the span of the door, looked ghostly and unnatural. He silently moved from his place and walked towards the end of the corridor. Halfway through, he turned around, theatrically waved his black cloak and said goodbye:
“Tomorrow you will find out everything,” there was a note of pain and subtle disappointment in his voice.
Rose was left alone in an unfamiliar, richly furnished room. How tasteless and worthless the decoration of the royal palaces seemed to her now, in comparison with the gloomy luxury of her new chambers.
Beautiful ball gowns lay on the bed. Rose chose one of them and tried it on. It fit her, as if it had been made to order for her.
She sat on the edge of the bed and waited for the owner of the castle to return. She was afraid that the dream that overcame her in these fabulous palaces would never end. The candle flame was so quiet and steady. As soon as Rose looked at these lights, there was no trace of her determination to stay awake all night. The princess’s eyelids became heavy and sticky. She soon fell asleep.
Edwin went down to an underground laboratory littered with ancient manuscripts. They all need to be deciphered. And then what? Who will win the final victory? So many years have passed in search of the right spell. These years were filled with impotent rage and a desire to free themselves. And now a distant gap appeared, and the almost extinct guiding star began to shine. Now the thirst for revenge has cooled a little, but has not disappeared.
For today, he has already fulfilled his duties, but before sitting down to his usual work, it is necessary to check how the wonderful guest got there. Edwin arranged the new papers on the shelves, checked the old ones in place, and left the laboratory. The lock on the strong, oak door had long been rusty, but it was not needed. Edwin ran the key crosswise across the smooth surface of the door, now no one can open this door even with a crowbar.
A narrow, spiral staircase with sharp turns led to a secret passage to the room where Edwin had left the beauty. It is unlikely that the guest expects that he will enter her not through the door, but by pushing the wall mirror. She is, after all, the daughter of a man and does not yet know that in a real castle every third painting and statue must contain a special secret.
He pushed back the mirror frame and slipped into the room. He learned to move so easily and silently that only his hair, sparkling like the rays of the winter sun, distinguished him from the shadow.
The beauty slept peacefully. Edwin moved closer to the bed to get a better look at it. Here is the one pursued by evil fate. What fate awaits her in the dragon’s deadly embrace? Is she guilty of being born the daughter of a king and a witch.
For a long time Edwin did not take his intent, studying gaze from her. His cold heart was touched for the first time. For so long a man’s foot has not stepped into this castle. And now a princess has appeared in the enchanted world. She curled up into a graceful ball among the clothes scattered on the bed. The skirts of the puffy dress surrounded her with a scarlet halo. The drooping eyelashes touched her cheeks, but there was something wrong with the hair. Edwin lightly touched the dark-haired head with his hand and found confirmation of his guess. One strand was missing.
And the girl continued to sleep so serenely. She looked like a beautiful china doll. Edwin even got scared when he imagined how she would become one of the statues in his collection.
“What should I do now?” He shook his head in sorrow. The question drowned in silence, without even disturbing the princess’s sleep.
Edwin went to the window, clasped his hands behind his back, as if he were still a prisoner, and looked longingly at the sickle of the month.
“Evil genius,” he whispered, “since you brought me out of my dungeon, I have disobeyed you for the first time.
Memories inspired melancholy. Edwin hoped that the girl would sleep until morning. And in the morning it will be easier to come to terms with the facts than during a dull nauseating night. Business awaits him now. He must practice magic long before the decisive battle. There is little time left, and the challenge to the enemy has already been thrown.
When the lord of the castle left the room, a stubborn black-haired head rose from the pillow. Rose squinted at the flame of candles and could not understand if someone came here or if she was just dreaming about it. What happened was more like a dream, because in reality the mirrors do not move from the walls by themselves, opening a loophole for wizards.
Rose sat up in bed and examined the luxurious furnishings. So, then, she got into the wizard’s castle. She could not name her new friend otherwise. His power over living things and inanimate objects like statues and candles seemed unlimited. Now she need to find out what he started and for what purpose he allowed her to enter his dwelling.
Rose quietly got up and left the room. The castle was huge. Will she be able to inspect all its chambers for the rest of the night.
Long corridors branched out like labyrinths. Rose chose her path at random. She tried to open one of the many doors, but it was locked. The princess tugged at the carved handles in vain; not a single door gave way.
Rose abandoned her vain attempts and ran down the narrow corridor. Her steps were light and silent. She herself was surprised at the speed with which she rushes past the walls decorated with tapestries and various door niches. It seemed to her that now swan wings would grow again and help her soar up. Dreams were interrupted by a sharp sound. An open door creaked in a low stone niche. She swayed on hinges, as if from a strong wind.
Rose hurried there. She had to bend in three deaths to squeeze through the low doorway. An unsightly door led into a tiny living room. There are several armchairs, a sofa and a table. There was only one picture on the wall.
A small chandelier dangled from the ceiling and dropped cones of light onto a brightly painted canvas. The artist depicted an autumn forest in the picture. Contrary to all the rules, from a distance, the painting looked tasteless, and close up the landscape was transformed. The freshness of early autumn emanated from it.
Every detail of the landscape looked alive: a crimson maple, an orange oak, fallen leaves on the water of a muddy stream. And the imagination painted the endless forest. Rose smelled wood, mushrooms and oak bark. As soon as you touch the canvas with your hand, it will be transferred to the picture, turning into a tiny drawing.
With a huge effort of will, Rose managed to look away from the canvas. In order not to succumb to the magnetic influence of the landscape again, she began to study the oak panel to which the painting was attached. The girl’s fingers slid over the carved patterns. The panel was scratched in places. Rosa ran the tips of her nails over the scratches, as if she was involuntarily looking for some kind of cipher, the solution of which would open a cache.
One deep scratch on the surface of the panel was shaped like a swan feather. Rose pressed down on her, and the panel creaked out, revealing a bottomless black hole. Bursting out of the dark void, the wind hurled dry, yellow leaves in her face. The peaceful murmur of the river reached the ears. A second later, the outlines of trees began to appear in the darkness. Rose stepped forward and felt solid ground under her feet. As soon as she crossed the permissible border, a terrible creak of a sliding panel was heard from behind. Rose turned sharply, but, to her surprise, did not find the previous wall. There was a forest behind the princess. Fallen leaves rustled underfoot.
At first it seemed to Rose that she was transported through a hidden hole into another dimension. After all, the leaves on the nearby birches were made of copper, and the air saturated with river moisture caused dizziness. Although it was unlikely that a secret passage could lead to another world, there must have been a magic line behind the wall, through which one could overcome many miles.
Rose moved away from the birches with clinking copper leaves and wandered towards the river. A arch bridge led to the other side. Moonlight blazed a glittering path across the inky waters of the river.
The night cavalcade rushed past the opposite bank with a noise. A nondescript-looking carriage stopped next to the bridge.
Rose did not expect to hear the familiar whistle in the sky, but the song of the dragon’s wings reached her at the most unexpected moment. Rose shuddered all over. After all, Edwin warned that outside the castle walls she would be left without protection. She should have obeyed his advice, not rushed to find trouble.
The shadow covered the moon. As soon as she saw a luminous spot in the dark sky, Rosa rushed away. She managed to reach the bridge before she heard the wild, frantic roar of the Golden Lord.
It was necessary to cross to the other side of the river as soon as possible. Rose’s footsteps echoed from the stones of the bridge. Flaming torches cast light on the princess’s marble-white shoulders. The scarlet dress made her an excellent target for the dragon.
Rose bent over the parapet, but the cold and darkness of the water forced her to give up the idea of throwing herself into the river abyss. All the same, the beast will guess that she is hiding under the bridge. At that moment, a winged shadow fell on the stone bridge. Flames of torches hissed and fluttered from a gust of wind.
By the way, the carriage door opened, and a lanky man in a long cape and a wide-brimmed hat, casting shadows on his face, came out.
“Help!” Rose screamed, hoping he would hear her. And he noticed her. Their gazes met and sank into each other. What Rose saw in his eyes. Only grief and darkness. Still, this accidental traveler was her last hope of salvation.
Rose rushed to him across the bridge. Lush skirts prevented her from running, and the ring on her hand lit up with such a bright light that it could compete with the eyes of the dragon. Amethyst always shone when the winged pursuer approached.
The girl could already feel the burning breath on her back. When she reached the middle of the bridge, she stumbled over a stone and fell on her back. Blood oozed from the injured leg. Rose raised herself in her arms and wanted to get up, but sharp claws wrapped around her waist.
Rose grabbed the parapet and the stones protruding from the masonry. For a moment, the dragon’s grip loosened. The golden wing landed on the bridge. The intolerable shine of the scales hurt her eyes. The dragon’s paw stepped cautiously onto the bridge, blinding with its golden sheen. Claws screeched across the cobblestones, leaving deep scratches.
Rose screamed and covered her face with her hands, fearing that the dragon would hurt her. And when, plucking up courage, she opened her eyes, she was numb with surprise. Next to her stood a silent youth in a black cloak.
“Edwin!” Rose whispered and was surprised herself as her tongue turned to call this arrogant, unfamiliar person Edwin. He had the same dazzling curls, the same azure-blue eyes, glaring fiercely and haughtily. What unknown force could so harden his pale face.
“This is a dream,” thought Rose, and at that very moment Edwin disappeared, a golden dragon towered in his place. He let out a heartbreaking cry, grabbed the princess and rushed up with her.
Rose has no strength left to resist. She watched the river and the bridge and the belated carriage disappear from view. The dragon picked up speed. In his claws, he clutched the prey, which almost escaped him.
THE JUDGMENT OF FATE
The castle towers appeared in the distance. In the blink of an eye, the dragon overcame the snow-covered valley and flew up to the highest spire. Here he unclenched his claws and released his victim.
Rose landed on the castle roof. She tried to get to her feet. Darkness reigned around, the wind howled. Snowflakes circled in the icy air. The slippery stone floor made all movements clumsy and useless. Rose was looking for something to grab onto, and groped for some kind of support.
Suddenly several torches flashed. Holding on to the support, Rose knelt down, pulled herself up, and then her palm brushed against a cold, sharp object. The girl looked up and saw that a huge monster with bronze wings and the head of a goblin was rising above her. Her hand brushed against the claws on his leg.
Rose drew back from him. She looked with horror at the gloomy monster looming over her. He stood motionless, as if he had no intention of attacking at all. The glare of the fire gave it a majestic and ominous look.
Only now did Rosa realize that in front of her was a bronze statue. Probably, the sculptor tried very hard to create such a gloomy creation. Even after making sure the monster was not alive, Rose was still afraid of him. She crawled away and came across the same statues. There were many of them here, dozens of bronze monsters, frozen on pedestals.
Two rows of silent, ugly figures stretched on either side of the Rose, forming a kind of gallery of fear.
Meanwhile, the dragon landed on the roof. There was enough space for him too. It hung over the Rose like a sparkling rock. The girl prepared herself for death. Now nothing could save her.
Sparks of green and red danced across the dragon’s scales. A flash of blinding light forced Rose to close her eyes, and when she opened her eyes again, the golden pursuer had already disappeared. In his place, Edwin stood and studied the wedge-scale brush. One might think that a plate gauntlet made of gold and with claws was fastened on his arm.
The bright shine of the metal slowly faded away. The disfigured hand returned to its former appearance. A smooth wing flashed and disappeared behind the young wizard.
“I warned you,” Edwin remarked, not without reproach. His previously calm voice had a threatening note.
“So you are a dragon!” Rose exclaimed. She watched the one whom she had recently considered her friend. How she had not previously guessed about his duplicity. Of course, his ideal human appearance could mislead anyone. Who could have guessed a bloodthirsty dragon in a beautiful, silent youth.
“Why did you run away?” Edwin asked, trying to hide the bursting rage. “Do you have any idea what danger awaited you on the other side of the river? If you had time to cross the bridge, even I would not be able to free you.”
“So you’re not going to kill me like those peasants?” Rose inquired suspiciously, crawling backward from the terrifying, stately figure wrapped in a dark cloak.
“What for?” Edwin asked a counter question. “All the same, you won’t be able to give out my secret to anyone. I will never let you out of this castle again.”
He walked with slow, firm steps towards Rose.
“Suppose you run away,” he said after a little thought. “You will survive under the bullets and arrows of the enemy and return to your kingdom, which has now become the scene of a bloody battle. The Queen will try to remove the spell from you, but it will be completely useless. The stigma that was put on you in the courtroom attracts a dragon. In human form, I am still capable of pity, but in the form of a dragon, nothing can hold me back. Relatives can hide you behind a door bound with iron. But I will still find you and bring you back.”
“Why do you need me?” Rose crawled away from him, as far as possible, trying not to touch the terrible statues, lined up in two lines. The snowfall made it difficult for her to see.
Edwin waved his hand and a protective, shining film surrounded them, preventing the snow from falling into the enclosed space.
He shrugged casually as he considered his answer.
“You will be the decoration of this castle,” he said finally. “Because dragons are collectors, they want the best.”
“But I’m a human, and people get old.”
“If you stay here, you will never grow old,” was the answer. “To stay forever young, you have to become either a sculpture or a fairy.”
At these words, Rose almost choked with horror.
“All those statues in the lobby and corridors,” she began to recall, “were they living people?”
“Almost everything,” Edwin corrected.
“How could you do this to them?”
“I have not been my own master for a long time. I got eternal life and an evil, vengeful heart as a gift. I must retain power over my own subjects and at the same time I must obey the orders of others. In saving you, I took the first risk of breaking the law.”
Rose now felt the ancient, superstitious fear of the dragon. Although there were no signs of fierce hatred in Edwin’s behavior, his eyes, burning with insane fire, inspired fear.
“I don’t think we should turn you into a piece of marble,” Edwin decided. “The walls of this fortress have enough magic to preserve your beauty.
“Thanks for that,” Rose whispered. After so many misadventures, her sense of humor finally began to return.
“Will you put me on this roof or closer to the torture chamber?” She asked.
“I’m not as villainous as I seem. Do not take for the truth everything that superstitious people come up with. They do not realize that, in people, I am first of all admired by intelligence and courage.”
“Courage?” Rose asked.
“Yes,” he confirmed. “After all, to save the troll, you need to be very brave.”
Rose stared at him in surprise. It seemed that there was no such intimate secret in the world that he would not know about.
Edwin removed the protective film with a light wave of his hand and invited Rose to follow him. A black flag with the dragon’s coat of arms fluttered on the spire of the pointed tower. Through this tower it was very easy to descend into the warm chambers of the castle.
“Someday I’ll show you what’s going on under the castle cellars, in the bowels of the earth,” Edwin said as he walked.
“It’s interesting,” Rose agreed out of courtesy, “but I would like to know why the bridge over the river is so dangerous.
Limping slightly, she followed Edwin down the spiral staircase. Each step hurt, but Rose tried to keep up.
Steep steps from the tower led directly to the library. Most likely, it was the largest room in the castle. From floor to vaulted ceiling, there were bookcases lined with books. Narrow ladders led to the upper galleries and the highest shelves.
Rose had never seen so many books in her life. There were old folios, weighty volumes of spells, collected works of unknown authors, and small collections of poems in morocco bindings. The colorful covers of novels about knights and fairies attracted attention.
The bulk of the library consisted of magic books. Rose took from the shelf an encyclopedia of the most insidious inhabitants of the magic world. It provided information about gnomes, trolls, water spirits, but not a word about the island of sorcerers.
She wanted to get a guide to unicorns, but Edwin called her over to the wall with a map on it. All those countries that Rosa had ever heard of occupied only a small corner on it. Further on, a cold ocean turned blue, on the other side of it were several principalities. The human world, which Rose believed to be endless, turned out to be only the top of the map. And right in the middle, the borders of a huge empire were marked in emerald color, on which the dragon’s coat of arms flaunted — a scarlet heart, bound with a golden crown. Forests surrounded the empire with a black line. Beyond it stretched the seas and bays of mermaids. The island of sorcerers was outlined with a silver stripe.
Rose did not immediately find on the map that very ink river with a bridge thrown over it. Across the river lies the city of spirits and strange ruins.
“The knights of the order of elves gather in these ruins at night. They are nimble and cunning, but not dangerous to me,” explained Edwin.
“And the city of spirits?”
“Ghosts live there. Of course, you can go there on a small excursion, but if you stay there for more than an hour,” he paused and whispered, “you yourself will turn into a ghost.”
“You were there?” Rose asked.
“Repeatedly. There is nothing interesting there, except for architectural monuments. And it would be foolish to expect good from communication with local residents.”
“And what are these badges?” Rose jabbed her finger at the map.
“Outside the city of spirits there is a gate, they lead into the abyss, where one veil once imprisoned a black miasm. They are marked with this symbol,” Edwin began to explain. “The rest of the signs indicate the places of sinkholes and quicksand. All the land beyond the bridge is contaminated. As I flew over it, I often felt the weakness and the bad intoxication that the black plague causes.”
“I saw people who quietly rode around this land.”
“Are you sure they were people?” Edwin asked after a little thought. “After all, we are all like people and, nevertheless, we are not. One must be very discerning to distinguish the true form from the mask.”
Rose nodded in agreement with his simple and cruel truth. She herself did not know the difference. I didn’t understand that there is nothing in common between representatives of two different worlds. An example of this was the wizard standing in front of her. Even his pale, soulful face and smooth, weightless movements perfectly copied the spontaneity and grace of the dragon.”
“The bridge and the castle are so far apart,” Rosa turned her gaze back to the map. “Is it possible to overcome such a space as quickly as I do.”
“It’s your indiscretion,” Edwin chided her again. “If you trace your life line, then you can understand how imprudent you were from the very beginning. Over the course of my life, I have learned one truth: eminent persons suffering from kind-heartedness very often become victims of betrayal.”
“And what happened in your life, besides raids, fires and robberies?” Rose asked boldly.
He chuckled, but then a blurry veil of sadness and longing twitched his eyes.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “Perhaps I was mistaken about you, now you are not the chosen one, but just a curious person who looks at me like a magician.”
“Unwittingly, I became a participant in the events, which even now I am afraid to give an explanation,” “after a pause, he continued. “I saw the fall of a great power. I was both a ruler and a prisoner. But for people all these are empty words, they prefer to stick to their version about me and others like me.”
His hand slid across the map, as if re-delineating cities, and pointed to an empty, gray spot, completely inconspicuous among the motley lines and signs.
“It’s over,” Edwin sighed. “And time cannot be turned back. Now I’m a famous villain to the whole world.”
“But your coat of arms is on these lands,” Rose pointed to the emerald borders of the empire. “What kind of people settled here?”
Edwin chuckled cheerfully, almost humanly.
“Those whom people called evil,” he replied. “And, in my opinion, they are a stronger, unreachable race. In fact, this is not a people, but a whole element and only one and only creature — the dragon — can keep it in obedience. Only the dragon agree to obey these proud and powerful creatures.”
Rose gave him a curious, suspicious look and said nothing. His appearance alone was beyond doubt. In front of her, indeed, stood an inhuman creature enveloped in a solar halo, in which all the attractiveness and all the evil of the magic world were combined.
“Until tonight I knew nothing about you or your domain.”
“How could you find out about this?” interrupted her reasoning Edwin. “Even the small information that was obtained by courageous people at the cost of numerous losses was hidden from you. Since you stepped on the middle road, I have welcomed you to my domain. Remember the absence of a snowstorm on this road, about the dense ice on the lake, which so successfully broke just under your enemies. Snow never melts in these forests, and inevitable death awaits aliens here. The valley and the castle are an obstacle on the way to a magic kingdom invisible to mortals.”
“Is it interesting there? Tell me how they live there.” Rose pointed to the forbidden borders.
“That’s what,” Edwin decided. “It’s your birthday at the end of the month. In honor of the name day, I will fulfill your wish and take you there so that you can see everything yourself. Such an adventure will be much more exciting than my story.”
He was much kinder than he seemed. But how could he explain to this mortal girl that he too was overtaken by the cruel sentence of fate. No, you shouldn’t explain anything to her. She won’t understand anything. She is just a beautiful doll — a new decoration for this deserted, gloomy castle.
“Wait, did you say what the gray spot on the map means?” Rose protested as Edwin led her out of the library.
“Once there was a rich, prosperous state, but now there are only ruins and dry, barren land, where no one wants to live.”
Edwin took Rose by the hand and pulled her along.
“Don’t be afraid of me,” he said suddenly. “I’m not a leper, and you don’t have to tremble like that at my approach. If the hunchback’s curse begins to work again, then without my help you will not live even a couple of days. By the way, on occasion I will remove this glass from your hand.”
He pointed to a ring with an extinct stone.
“Thank you,” Rose said. She had no doubt that Edwin was capable of removing the evil trinket from her finger. Now she wondered if she could get rid of the ring and cast off the Curse of the Swan at the same time.
The next evening, the dragon’s castle no longer seemed to Rose as gloomy as it had been when the verdict was pronounced. Yes, she is sentenced to stay forever in this mansion. It’s not that bad here. Snow glistens outside the window, her room is full of trinkets, and there are always a few books available from the library.
Someone knocked softly on the door.
“Come in!” Rose shouted without hesitation.
The door slowly opened, and a small, round face with brightly painted lips and eyelashes peeped into the room. In surprise, Rose dropped the brush with which she was combing her hair when several living puppets entered the room one after another. They moved independently, pushed and talked. Rose was so overwhelmed that she could not even answer the greetings.
Finally, the most elegant puppet stepped forward and announced with an air of importance:
“Our master has ordered us to serve your highness.”
“What can you do?” Rose asked immediately. She really could not understand how these fragile, small dolls could be useful, except to serve as toys.
You have to be a fool to entrust such weak, cute babies with some kind of work.
However, the puppets turned out to be very agile and neat maids. They worked together and cheerfully. Rose couldn’t get enough of the tiny people scurrying about the room. The puppets played the role of both maids and maids-in-waiting at the same time. In a quarter of an hour, the room was shining clean.
The puppets helped the princess put on a purple festive dress and strung small diamonds on her hair.
“The master is already waiting for you,” one of the puppets reported in her thin, melodic voice.
Edwin, indeed, was already at the front staircase. This elegant young man was nothing like a wicked monster hiding in the shadow of looted treasures. His cold beauty emanated not only twilight evil, but also wisdom and knowledge that only immortals possess.
The walls of the castle are also endowed with inexhaustible strength, the ability to prolong youth and heal. Rose felt it when, in just a night in the castle, all her wounds and scratches healed and covered with new transparent skin.
Rose was accompanied by two puppets. One minced ahead, pointing the way through the corridors, and the other carried her train.
“Where did you find them?” Rose dared to ask, when timid, agile dolls, seeing Edwin, hurried into the shadow of the nearest column.
“They’re a trophy of war,” he explained. “I won them over from the witch union. Not because I needed a servant. I just don’t like it when someone is cruel to helpless creatures. These crumbs will die without protection. Puppets are a small nation that everyone is trying to infringe on their rights.”
He spoke sincerely and, nevertheless, Rose decided to pin him up.
“They are so intimidated. Tell me, if they weren’t so rare, you would treat them as you did that village.”
“You are cocky,” Edwin remarked, not without admiration. He took Rose by the hand and led her down the dark corridor.
“I promised to take you to my world. Today we will go to the favorite place of its inhabitants, namely the theater!” He announced solemnly as they stopped next to the sculpture whitening in the gloom.
Rose was used to the sculptures greeting Edwin’s approach with respectful gestures. Therefore, the low bow of the stone woman did not cause much surprise in her. However, when the outline of the gate began to appear next to the sculpture, the princess was amazed. The walls of the corridor began to blur in a dark haze. Only the statue and the lattice gate remained, braided with fragrant flower garlands.
“Hold on to my hand and don’t say a word until we cross the border,” Edwin ordered.
Rose grabbed his hand and followed him into a space filled with white light and mixed fragrances of flowers. Behind her there was a creak of the closing gate. Rosa convulsively held on to the hand of her guide and was silent. She was afraid to even ask where they were.
The outlines of two caryatids loomed ahead, a door ring gleaming in a circular niche between them.
“This is a service entrance,” Edwin explained. “Through it you can quietly get into the auditorium during the performance.”
He pulled on the ring, opened the door and lifted the heavy curtain, letting his companion into the auditorium.
At first, Rose was startled. She had never seen such a huge theater. Prior to that, she only went to Odile’s home theater, where short plays in one act were staged and wandering actors occasionally performed. If you sit next to someone else’s throne and watch the same performances day after day, you begin to think that outside the palace life is as monotonous and boring as in it. But Edwin opened the gates to another world for her, showed magic from all sides. The dragon kept silent only about the most important — about his past and about the fear of the future. Let the girl be in the dark and enjoy life for now.
Rosa walked along the empty stalls, past the armchairs upholstered in red velvet, and turned to look at the boxes.
“Three tiers is already progress for modern architects,” she remarked competently. Her voice echoed throughout the theater.
Edwin wanted to recall the difference between the two worlds, but refrained.
“Do you think the building is well built?” he asked.
“Sure!” Rose examined the mezzanine, trying to remember each carved decoration.
“You are complimenting members of another race. People would severely condemn you for that!” still reminded Edwin.
“Would have been sentenced to trial or recognized as a witch,” Rose agreed, laughing. “They are all such patriots. Especially the knights, for them the code of honor is to beg as much land and honor from their overlord, and on occasion even overthrow the king and put one of their own on the vacated throne.” Rose with indignation recalled last year’s uprising. “Nobility is so rare, but it still occurs. In any kingdom there are people of honor, and there are mercenaries. Here everything is different. There are no boundaries for imagination.”
Her words sounded like a bell ringing. Rose thought that someone was eavesdropping on her. She would swear she saw someone lurking behind the upstairs curtains on the first tier.
“I’d like to compliment you too,” Rose said plucking up courage. “You are very handsome”.
A pipe sang in the orchestra pit, and Rose plunged into the sound of music. Edwin lowered his head sadly. Once he was handsome, but now a dark cloud of curse hung over his head.
Two flutes joined the pipe. A quiet melody flowed down the parterre and soon remembered the entire surrounding space.
Rose leaned over the barrier of the orchestra pit.
“Where are the musicians?” She asked.
“They do not like to flaunt themselves and generally assume a visible appearance.”
“Do you see them?” Rose did not lag behind. Diamonds gleamed in her hair like dew drops, a smile emerging at the corners of her pink lips.
“Yes,” Edwin replied and turned away sharply, making it clear that the topic was settled.
No matter how much Rose looked, there was no one near the musical instruments. Although violins, trumpets and flies played. The tambourine rang by itself. Only the performers remained invisible.
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