The Diamond Gate
Every night for two years, seven sisters—princesses all—walked beneath silver trees hung with jeweled fruit, crossed a still black lake, and danced to liquid music with their faerie suitors. Every night for two years, their shoes collapsed and kept the city's cobblers busy.
His schemes for political and trade alliances thwarted by his daughters' nightly disappearances, the royal duke of Nuygenie invited royalty and aristocrats from far and wide to solve the mystery and win the hand of a princess. They came and they failed.
Then a common soldier, aged by war and years, thought to try his luck and improve his circumstances. A kindness to an old hag resulted in a magic cloak of invisibility and excellent advice that he put to good use to break the enchantment that held the princesses in thrall to their fey suitors.
Rejoicing, the duke elevated the soldier to serve as his general, so that the man might have rank befitting his royal bride. General Miles Carrow chose the eldest sister, Aurora, and wondered at the emptiness of their betrothal.
The passage beneath was blocked and sealed with iron. The sisters did not discuss all they had lost. No one ever asked them if they had even wanted to be rescued.
This is the story after the faerie tale.
No one slept well that night.
Thus it was nineteen soldiers, two princesses, four messenger pigeons, and one each of a general and a prince and a lady’s maid who gathered at the foot of the Diamond Gate beneath the shadow of Nar-Amn and with the pale winter sun at their backs.
“How do we get through?” the question came over and over again. None wished to remain with the corpse of a foolish soldier who sought nothing more than water. But none wished, exactly, to venture into the unknown that lay beyond the Gate. A tendril of mist extended down, licked Aurora’s cheek. She recoiled at its frigid touch and then found herself avoiding another finger of mist. And then another. And another.
“Aurora!” the general yelled and kicked his horse into a lumbering gallop.
She whimpered and jerked herself back, nearly unseating herself. The sturdy mountain pony sidled beneath her. With another whimper, she leaned forward over the pony’s neck, buried her face in its thick, coarse mane, and walloped her heels into its sides. The animal squealed and shot forward, the lick of a finger of mist on its rump spurring it to even greater speed.
Miles steered his horse toward the panicked pony. With the animals’ lurching through the heavy snow, he did not attempt to grab the pony’s reins from his own seat, but maneuvered his gelding so that the pony either stopped or ran into the much larger, more aggressive animal. Being a sensible creature, the pony stopped, but not before the charger delivered it a nasty nip.
Sides heaving, the pony dropped its head until its muzzle touched the snow. Aurora tumbled forward. Miles launched himself from the charger and landed barely in time to catch her. He gathered the princess to him. Her terrified shivering incited tremors that shook his own body.
“Shh, Aurora,” he whispered in her ear. “I’ve got you now. Shh.”
And she turned her face into his coat and wept. Miles nearly wept himself. It took ugliness and terror to make his betrothed turn to him. What would it take to make her love him and did he want to put her or himself through that?
Jonathan and two of the soldiers pulled up with another pony in tow. The prince dismounted and humbly assisted in transferring his sister from the general’s arms to the saddle of the other pony.
“Thank you,” he said somberly.
Carrow nodded, his face grim. Then he heard a voice, a woman’s sweet voice, singing. And he knew a terrible dread.
“What’s that song?” Jonathan asked.
“Those aren’t human words,” Carrow grated and picked up his horse’s reins. They walked toward the other princess and the helpless soldiers surrounding her. The remaining soldiers stood still, each within an arm’s distance of Pearl, each immobile. Fingers of mist caressed her lovingly as she sang.
“Don’t go closer,” Carrow warned.
Jonathan frowned, but stopped.
Carrow bent down, gathered a handful of snow, breathed heavily on it to moisten it and form a snowball cohesive enough to throw. And he threw it. The snowball disintegrated in the air.
“Here, I have some water,” one of the two soldiers with him volunteered and handed over a canteen.
Carrow made another snowball and instructed the soldier to form a few more. The slight dampening of water quickly fused the snow into a dead weight of ice. The general threw it and impassively watched as it thudded into the princess’ side. She barely twitched. He launched several more snowballs, most hitting the target. Jonathan, not yet understanding the general’s plan but trusting in the older man, set to forming and throwing snowballs. It was a sick parody of a children’s winter game, but finally a ball of ice thwacked the princess’ head. The singing stuttered, her eyelids fluttered. She gasped, her concentration broken, the spell breaking. Two snowballs simultaneously slammed into her chest and belly and she doubled over. Another one struck her head and she tumbled beyond the mist’s immediate reach. Bright red blossomed in the snow beneath her face and Pearl looked up, nose bloodied and streaming copiously.
“See to Aurora,” Carrow ordered and he went over to Pearl as the soldiers eased from the enchantment she had unknowing woven around them. Digging into his pocket, he brought up a wrinkled handkerchief and staunched the flow of blood. And then Pearl began sobbing.
“What happened?” he asked her gently when the sobs lessened.
“I don’t know,” she replied with a soggy sniff. “I was watching you save Aurora and then…then…I don’t know.”
Before the weeping could begin anew, he kissed her brow and assured her that he was not angry with her.
“Such familiarity was uncalled for,” Jonathan snapped a few minutes later.
“Sometimes a princess is just a woman,” Carrow replied imperturbed, “and needs to be treated as such.”
They passed another uneasy night beneath the Diamond Gate. The general regretted the loss of what few messenger pigeons had remained.
“We’ll have to assume the Guardian isn’t here and isn’t coming back,” Carrow said as he gazed upward at the gleaming, glittering fall of ice.
Hard boiled, scrambled, over easy, and sunny side up: eggs are the musings of Holly Bargo, the pseudonym for the author.
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