Reflect - Snow White Retold - Demelza Carlton - ebook
Opis

A princess in danger. A heroic huntsman. A reflection revealing too much truth. Once upon a time… Princess Guinevere and her brother, Prince Xylander, flee the mad king's court in search of a marriage alliance with another kingdom. But when Guinevere's new husband falls ill and his only heir goes missing, Guinevere and Xylander must save the suddenly hostile kingdom or face exile…and their father's wrath.  Mirror, mirror on the wall…whose will be the worst fate of all?

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Contents

Title Page

Free books

Dedication

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Part 11

Part 12

Part 13

Part 14

Part 15

Part 16

Part 17

Part 18

Part 19

Part 20

Part 21

Part 22

Part 23

Part 24

Part 25

Part 26

Part 27

Part 28

Part 29

Part 30

Part 31

Part 32

Part 33

Part 34

Part 35

Part 36

Part 37

Part 38

Part 39

Part 40

Part 41

Part 42

Part 43

Part 44

Part 45

Part 46

Part 47

Part 48

More fairytales

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About the Author

Reflect:

Snow White Retold

Demelza Carlton

A tale in the Romance a Medieval Fairy Tale series

A princess in danger. A heroic huntsman. A reflection revealing too much truth.

Once upon a time...

Princess Guinevere and her brother, Prince Xylander, flee the mad king's court in search of a marriage alliance with another kingdom.

But when Guinevere's new husband falls ill and his only heir goes missing, Guinevere and Xylander must save the suddenly hostile kingdom or face exile...and their father's wrath.

Mirror, mirror on the wall...whose will be the worst fate of all?

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DEDICATION

For Geraldine, because Snow White always was her favourite.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2018 Demelza Carlton

Lost Plot Press

All rights reserved.

ONE

Guinevere whirled around in panic when her door slammed. The whirr of doves in flight signalled the departure of her friends. She envied them their easy escape.

"He's finally gone mad," Xylander said. He strode across the room to close and bar the shutters, engulfing them both in gloom. "You're not safe here any more."

Guinevere pressed a hand to her chest, trying to still her racing heart. She managed a weak smile. "We're his only children. He wouldn't hurt us." Not even she believed it. Or why would she panic so at the slamming of a door?

Xylander shook his head. "You didn't hear him, Guin. He's been trying to arrange marriages for us both. He said if the king you're supposed to marry won't agree on your dowry, he'll cut off your head and hands and send them to him instead."

"A jest, surely."

"He sent for the Master at Arms, demanding his axe, Guin. That was no jest. You must flee." Xylander pressed something into her hands. Sackcloth, it felt like. "Fill this with everything you wish to take with you. I recommend you wear something sturdy and warm, suitable for rough travel, and fill the sack with your court clothes and what jewels you can carry."

She had precious few of those, seeing as her father didn't allow her in court. She had no jewels to speak of, for those that had belonged to her mother had been claimed by her stepmother. As for rough travel...why, she hadn't left the castle grounds in months. The roughest travel she'd known in years was to get a stone in her slipper on the way to the cathedral as she crossed the square. "Xylander, I can't."

He gripped her shoulders. "We must. I will come with you to protect you, Guin, and see you safely to your new kingdom. You will be a queen, just like Mother was."

Her little brother protecting her. A few years ago, it would have been a funny notion, but Xylander had become a man while she became a mouse.

"What will we eat? Where will we sleep?" she asked. And what would become of the castle in her absence? She'd been chatelaine since her mother's death.

"We will bring as much food as we can carry in our saddlebags, and I can hunt along the way. I will pitch you a hunting camp as comfortable as your tower room here, I promise."

She wanted to believe him. Oh, the comfort was likely a lie, for nothing beat her feather bed atop its straw mattress, though the straw was wearing thin now. They must be due to be refilled – something else she'd planned to do this week. Could she trust the maids to do the work without her?

No, it was her brother she would have to trust, because she'd be leaving the beds and the maids behind.

She did believe Xylander about the hunting part, for the guards had taken to calling him Xylander the Huntsman, and the bards told stories of his victories on feast days. When her father allowed it, of course. More and more often lately, he'd roar at the bard for getting some detail wrong and send the poor man out of the hall for a flogging.

Come to think of it, there hadn't been any bard at the last feast she'd been allowed to attend. Even the travelling minstrels had stayed clear, not willing to risk being flogged to death for some imagined slight.

Xylander was right. Her heart knew it, but her head had just needed a moment to catch up.

"Bring me boys' garb. Something your squire would wear, so that when we ride out of the gates together, no one will think to look twice at me," Guinevere said. She thought a moment, then added, "Don't forget a cloak, for if I must look like a queen when we arrive, I cannot cut my hair, and I will need a cloak to cover it."

Xylander nodded. "I had thought to wait for nightfall, but if you wear a disguise, we can leave sooner. You are as brave as you are wise, sister. Any kingdom would be blessed to have you as their queen." He hurried out.

Guinevere let herself sag against the shuttered window. She would have to be a fool to try and flee from her father, who would send his troops out in search of his lost children.

But she would rather take her chances with bandits on the road, than wait for the axe to fall here. A fool she might be, but she'd be a bigger fool if she stayed.

TWO

An owl screeched in the night, warning invaders out of its territory.

Guinevere jumped. "What was that?" Her round eyes reflected the firelight, making her look like an owl herself.

Xylander fought not to laugh. "Just a barn owl. I thought you liked birds."

She pulled her cloak more closely around her and lay down again. "I do. I just...never heard one scream like that. It sounds like that poor woman last week, when Father overturned the soup pot in his fury and scalded the cook." She shivered.

Poor Guinevere. With their older brother, Lubos, riding around the kingdom, doing his best to rule in Father's stead, and Xylander out hunting as often as he could, she alone had borne the brunt of their father's rages, along with her duties as castle chatelaine, for their stepmother hadn't the slightest idea how to run a castle.

"You'll be safe inside the walls of your own castle before Father finds out you're gone, and not even he will be mad enough to go to war to get you back," Xylander said.

She rolled onto her side so she faced him. "Where are we going, Lander?"

"To the court of King Artorius, in Castrum. His fortress city is nigh on impregnable, and his knights are the finest anywhere. Father offered him your hand in marriage, so it will not seem strange for you to arrive." Xylander hesitated, but he had to tell her the rest, so he continued, "Artorius has a daughter, but no sons, so he demanded that Father betroth me to his daughter by way of alliance instead. Father wants the girl to come here, to make me his heir and unite the two kingdoms. Artorius wants me to go there, to marry the girl and become king."

"But Lubos is the eldest, and Father's heir!" Guinevere protested.

"Father has gone mad, like I said." Xylander said, throwing a stick at the fire.

"So you're taking me to Artorius, so you can claim your bride? Then what?" she asked.

Xylander shook his head. "Once you are safely crowned, then I can disappear. I have no desire to be king of anywhere, Guin. You know that. I've always left the kingly things to Lubos, because that's his destiny, not mine. I wish I'd been born a knight, or some nobleman, so that I might spend my days hunting. You must call me Lander, or Sir Lander, and if anyone asks, I am your protector, your father's sworn knight. Not a prince."

"And what about the girl? The princess?" Guinevere pressed.

He would stay as far away from her as possible. Xylander forced himself to shrug. "A marriageable girl, whose dowry comes with a whole kingdom, shouldn't be so difficult to deal with, even if she's a gorgon. Find her a more suitable match than me. I'd suggest Lubos, but he had his heart set on some baron's daughter, last time I looked. You'll be her stepmother, so marriage alliances are well within your power to make. Or perhaps she has her own ideas. If she's anything like you, I'm sure she will."

Even if she was still the loveliest woman in the world, nothing would induce Xylander to marry the girl, because her dowry came with a king's crown he had no desire to wear. Better to believe her a gorgon, and never see her again.

"Worry not about the girl, or anything else," he said. "As your brother and your knight protector, I swear on my life I will see that you are safe before I leave you. You will never have to face Father and his axe."

She sighed. "Then you should sleep, too, for you will need to be well rested if we must ride to the next kingdom." She patted the blanket beside her. "Better than sleeping on the floor of my tower room, just like you said." She smiled at her own joke, making light of her discomfort.

Xylander shook his head. "I cannot. Someone must stand watch, and even if I wanted to, I could not sleep, knowing you are in danger." And whenever he closed his eyes, his imagination showed him her headless, handless corpse. Better to stay awake all night than think of such things.

"I thought you'd say that. So I brought you an apple." She held it out. "I've enchanted it so that a single bite will give you a night of dreamless sleep. Even a man of your size."

He took the apple, thanking her for the gift as he tucked it away for later. Much later, when they had reached Castrum, and he could finally sleep soundly.

If they reached Castrum.

Xylander waited for Guinevere to fall asleep before he banked the fire, hiding its light so that no one would see them from the road. She'd taken such good care of him after their mother died – it was time he repaid the favour.

THREE

They arrived at Castrum in the late afternoon, not long before the city gates closed at sunset. Xylander insisted on sleeping the night at an inn before entering Artorius' court, and Guinevere was grateful. A bath and a bed for the night after such a wearying journey was just what she needed.

The sounds of the city woke her at dawn, and she had never been one to lie abed when there was work to be done. She unbraided her hair, still slightly damp from its washing last night, and combed it until it was dry. Without a maid to help her and only her blurred reflection in the scratched bronze mirror to guide her, Guinevere knew better than to attempt to dress her own hair as would be expected at her father's court.

She changed into a fresh shift, then laid out her dresses to see if anything would suit. She'd rolled them all together in the saddlebag, so the silks and linens were now hopelessly creased, but the one woollen gown she'd tightly rolled in the heart of the bundle had not suffered the same fate. The white lambswool smoothed out at a touch, its softness strange under her fingers after so long wearing rough squire's clothes.

"By all that's holy, Guin, put some clothes on. You're haloed against the firelight, and though you might look heaven-sent to any other man like that, heaven knows I don't want to see my sister naked."

The sight of Xylander with an arm thrown over his eyes, as if to block out the morning light, brought laughter to her lips as it lightened her heart. She slipped the white gown over her head as she said, "So you think King Artorius will be willing to marry me?"

"Any man would be willing to marry you," Xylander said. "Except me, of course."

"Of course." She tied her laces, then adjusted her girdle so it sat right. "Do I look good enough for court, Lander?"

"If there is a man among them who dares say otherwise, I shall challenge them on the spot," he said, filling the basin with water and dunking his head in. He came up spluttering. "And fight for your honour."

She snorted. "What good would it do for you to get stuck on a sword?"

He drew himself up haughtily. "I am an expert swordsman. In the battle for your honour, it will be the other man who is pierced by my blade."

"Even worse. I'm sure Artorius will really want to marry me, knowing it's my fault one of his knights was slayed for simply slighting me."

Xylander rubbed his face vigorously with a towel, then blinked at her. "A truly noble king would recognise the loyalty you command in your men, and be even more eager for an alliance."

"Do you think Father will honour such an alliance?"

Xylander's wince answered for him.

They ate a silent breakfast, and all too soon made their way up the spiralling streets to the castle.

FOUR

At this early hour, Father's court would have been empty, but King Artorius evidently rose early, and everyone knew it. Xylander wished he'd known it, as he craned his neck over the crowd to the throne on the dais. Yes, there was a man sitting on it, who surely must be the king.

"All of the women wear veils here!" Guinevere hissed, looking stricken.

Xylander shrugged. What did it matter if she covered her hair or not?

The party of merchants currently petitioning the King bowed and moved out of the way.

Xylander straightened. There they were – Artorius' famous knights. Each clad in a different surcoat, emblazoned with the symbols that were as legendary as the men themselves. He'd heard they stood as equals in Artorius' court, but every group had a leader, the first among equals, and the first among them was the man wearing an azure surcoat, emblazoned with a sword in either silver or white – it was hard to tell at this distance.

"I'll go speak to the herald, so he can announce you," Xylander said, squeezing inside the crowded hall. He might not be dressed in his princely best, but the sword on his hip proclaimed he was wealthier than most of the peasants hoping to be heard today, and the crowd parted for him.

He took his time scanning the court, taking in as much as he could, before giving Guinevere's name to the herald. Then he hurried back to her.

"The King is old, older than Father," he murmured in her ear. "Guin, I don't think he wants a bride. We may have to go somewhere else."

"Where would you have me go? No, Lander, Castrum is strong enough to withstand an attack, even from Father's armies. I'm not leaving here." From the set of her chin, he knew it would be futile arguing with her.

An idea came to him. "If he refuses you, ask to marry one of his knights. They are all of noble blood, and any one of them will protect you with his life." Xylander grasped her arm. "You will be much happier with some handsome knight than a white-haired old king, Guin."

She shook him off. "Don't be daft. Father betrothed me to the King, or tried to, and I will honour his offer. Just because a man is handsome doesn't make him a good husband."

Xylander tried again. "Yes, but – "

"Her Royal Highness, Princess Guinevere of Flamand," the herald boomed.

Xylander's heart sank.

FIVE

Guinevere heard her name, but the roaring in her ears blocked out everything else. A path opened up before her, walled with people on either side, and she marched forward, her head held high.

Every woman wore a veil – she was the only one with her head uncovered. And why had she chosen to wear white? Artorius' court all wore dark, sombre colours, making her look as out of place as snow in summer.

Yet the wall of humanity wilted as she passed – bows and curtseys, as one would expect for a princess. The only ones who remained standing were a crowd of men off to the side of the King's dais. They looked like knights tricked out for a tourney, with their brightly coloured surcoats. Every one of them stared avidly at her.

She did her best to ignore them, and curtseyed deeply at the foot of the King's dais.

"Princess Guinevere of Flamand. What brings you to Castrum?"

She looked up, fixing her eyes on the King's bushy, white, raised eyebrows. "I have come to offer myself in marriage, to forge an alliance between our two countries."

The eyebrows bunched, almost meeting in the middle. "I told your father I have no need for another bride. I will send you home with an honour guard." He motioned toward the knights. "Lancelot, assemble a squad of your best men. You shall escort the princess home to Flamand, and you shall tell King Ludgar – "

"No." Guinevere held up her hand to stop the King, and found she had stopped the bright blue knight, too, whose sword-emblazoned surcoat stood mere inches from her hand. She met the knight's eyes, and was surprised to find they matched his surcoat, despite his dark hair.

A knight in her father's court would have ducked his head instantly, knowing he was not worthy to read the princess's soul, but this knight held her gaze with a mix of curiosity and approval.

You will be much happier with some handsome knight, the memory of her brother's voice whispered.

He was so handsome, just looking at him made her heart sing, this blue knight. But no amount of singing would keep her safe. Only the King could do that.

"No, King Artorius. I did not undertake the perilous journey from my father's kingdom to yours only to fail in my quest now. My father does not forgive failure. No matter how many knights you send, they will not be able to protect me from my father's wrath. I am a dutiful daughter, and I will be wed." Or she had been a dutiful daughter until now. Damn Father for driving her to this. A tear slipped down her cheek, and her voice dropped to a whisper. "Please, Your Majesty, do not send me back."

Silence fell, before the whispering began. Guinevere held the King's gaze, letting her eyes speak for her. Help me, please.

"Come, Princess." Artorius extended a hand toward her, palm up, while he waved away the blue knight with the other. "Come and sit beside me."

She grasped the King's hand, and rose. He guided her to the throne beside his – the queen's throne – and made her sit.

Then he called for the next petitioner.

Numbly, Guinevere sat beside him, only half listening to the endless stream of petitions and the judgements Artorius made. The words washed over her, but some things she did notice.

Unlike her father, Artorius never raised his voice, or lost his temper.

The blue knight never took his eyes off her.

And at the end of the audience, when Artorius rose to dismiss his court, he still kept hold of her hand.

"Three days' hence, there will be a celebratory feast, to mark the marriage of two kingdoms, when I will take Princess Guinevere as my bride," Artorius announced.

Guinevere almost cried with relief, but managed to restrain herself, for she felt everyone's eyes upon her.

Everyone but the blue knight, who suddenly found the flagstones at his feet far more fascinating.

SIX

Xylander headed back to the inn, thinking to collect his things and ride away. Now Guinevere was safe, he could be on his way. Find his own destiny, so to speak, as far from his father as possible.

"Is she fair, the princess?"

"The fairest lady I have ever seen. Skin white as fresh-fallen snow, lips as red as blood..."

Xylander grinned. Guinevere didn't think she had any beauty to speak of, but she'd turned every head in court today, male and female alike. She'd been wasted, shut up in Father's castle. Here, she would be allowed to bloom.

Or at least he hoped so. Perhaps he should stay for a little while, just to see how her marriage suited her. He owed her that.

"...and hair as black as ebony. The prettiest princess you ever saw, with a heart so soft, she covers her face and weeps at the sight of blood."

They weren't talking about Guinevere. Xylander had seen his sister hawking with their mother, and when her falcon had brought her a duck or a fat pigeon, she'd snapped their necks like any born hunter. Quick, decisive, yet without cruelty or enjoyment, heedless of the blood on her hands from the wounds the falcon's talons had gouged in her prey.

Even on the day Mother's gyrfalcon, Circe, had sliced through Mother's glove and drawn blood, Guinevere had held her head high, taking the bird from Mother before cleaning and bandaging Mother's arm. He'd wished for Guinevere, the first – and last – time he'd come to Castrum.

A time best forgotten.

"When she takes her place as queen, then we will truly know peace."

Xylander choked back a laugh. A leader who could not stand the sight of blood would not be strong enough to maintain any kind of peace.

"You dare laugh at our future queen?" a cool voice demanded.

Xylander blinked, realising the merchant was addressing him. Evidently he hadn't choked back his laughter soon enough. "It takes a strong leader to ensure peace. One like King Artorius. He's taking a new wife soon, who may yet give him a son. If she does, the princess will never be queen."

The merchant shook his head pityingly. "You know little of our king, sir. He has not taken another wife because he means to see Princess Zurine inherit his throne. The only son he wants is a son in law, a fitting consort for the princess, but no man is good enough."

Xylander opened his mouth to say that Artorius had thought he was good enough, then snapped it shut again. He was pretending to be a knight, not a prince. And he did not want their ebon-haired princess, who would never want to come hunting with him. He imagined her as a dark raincloud, raining tears too often.