The walk felt endless. I wished more than once that I’d taken Lage up on his offer of his cloak. But regrets were pointless and I trudged on, refusing to be dragged by the guards. I would stand on my own two feet.
After what felt like an hour of walking, we emerged from the forest into a clearing. There, towering up out of seemingly nowhere, a gated city with a tall castle stood.
It was like something straight out of a fairytale. The walls were of white stone, two stories tall, with ramparts. There was a thick trench dug before them, filled with spears and what looked like a small frozen bed of water. There was the drawbridge that was lifted up. But before this drawbridge, on our side of the moat, was a solitary guard and several waiting horses.
“Take her on your horse,” Rebella ordered one of the guards before mounting her lovely dappled gray horse. I wanted to touch the horses, to take in all their colors – for I had never seen one up in real life before. But now was not the moment to be in awe. I was hoisted up to sit before a guard, and Rebella whirled her horse towards the drawbridge.
“Lower the drawbridge!” she called out. “The princess orders it!”
Clankings answered, and the drawbridge lowered swiftly. Rebella ordered her horse forward with a click of the tongue, and we followed her as a cluster of guards.
We passed beneath the thick of the wall, and we entered the city.
I was struck by the sight first. There was myriads of houses toppled together, stacked upon each other, and clustered in shapings that seemed to suit people of all sizes. There was some that bore tiny gnome-like doorways that were round. There were some that seemed just a little too tall, and lopsided at that too. There were others that seemed svelte and elven.
Yet the people before us couldn’t have looked more bland. They were dirty, browned with sun and exhaustion. They were monochrome in their blandness, their clothing all turned to the same shade of brown and dirt as they were. Their clothes were tattered and thin. They hastily rushed out of the way of the princess’s horse. It was that or be crushed, I guessed, for Rebella stared straight through them and seemed to pay no heed to anyone. Her horse marched on, and the people scattered like ants. The guards had their hands on the pommels of their swords, and glared angrily all around.
Whispers rose, fingers pointed, but they were far away. No one dared come near to point at me.
As we proceeded through the city, the stench let itself be known. The air was in turn crisp and cool of winter, then it was the moist warm stench of fecal remains. Then it was mold, then crisp again with another gust.
This place stinks, I realized grudgingly.
And yet, the castle that towered before us did not look like it ought to belong in a place of stink. It was tall and spired, it was magnificent. It had handfuls of turrets, towers, and pointy-topped roofs straight out of a novel. It was made of the same white stone as the walls were, and it looked surreal. I wondered if the stink would get better as we approached.
After a good hour of riding through the thick of filthy people, we were met with another wall, another gate which Rebella ordered opened – and which swung open inwards for her. Again, she rode onwards as if the world owed her something.
It was in here that the stink finally let up. Here there were snowy gardens, fluffy bushes that were topped with red winter berries. Fruit trees that were bare save for ice and snow. Here, the poor were obviously not welcome.
We rode onwards, our breath misting icily before our faces. Colorfully dressed people were seen walking about here and there. They curtsied as Rebella passed, and turned their faces away from the guards – and turned quickly back to gawk at me. They rode on horses as well, trimmed in fur cloaks and richly decorated clothes.
Finally, we had crossed the gardens. The castle stood before us like a multi layered cake, the immensity of it mind boggling. It was tall as a skyscraper, taller than I believed any medieval palace had ever been. Here, at its outer edges, it was already three flights high, and it only grew taller and more multilayered towards the middle.
Rebella dismounted, landing gracefully like a cat. People rushed forward from an open doorway, and they were not dressed in furs. They were simply clothed, and seemed to be servants. Rebella tossed her horses’ reins at them in disdain, and turned to face me.
“Bring the girl,” she ordered the guard behind me. “Hurry up!”
The guards clustered around this horse, several of them holding me while the guard behind me dismounted. Then, by several hands, I was passed down and placed on the ground like a very precious lump. Or a lump they believed might run away. But that was stupid. Where was I to run to?
With one scowl from Rebella, she turned and marched into a large doorway before us. The guards hastily followed, three of them clustering around me to hold my shoulders and half-carry me forward.
Inside, the corridor was dark, lit by the occasional lamp. The lamps were gorgeous! They had an oriental flair to them I supposed, looking all blown glass with leaves and elaborate people painted onto them and the wood pieces holding them carved as well with swirls and motifs.
Rebella paid this no heed. She marched straight on, her cloak billowing about her. I stared from one lapm to another until I saw spots. Then, as I was blinking spots out of my eyes, we reached a doorway.
Rebella shoved it open with a bang, and we were flooded with light.
We were let out into a courtyard, and I had to blink and blink to be sure it was real. Of course it couldn’t be – nothing int his world seemed to be – but it was.
It was green. There was grass, fruits trees, and so many bushes of fruits and vegetables in clusters here and there in spiralling pathways. It stretched on in all directions for a good hundreds of feet, like a small field. Up, above, a domed ceiling lined with metal spires held up twinkling glass that made this all possible.
Rebella was drawing off her cloak. She tossed it to a servant who rushed to her side to catch it before the white fur touched the ground. Turning, Rebella seized me by the shoulder and began to march forward, straight into the heart of the inner gardens.
There, a cluster of people were attending to a large chair. On this chair, lumped up in silks and fabrics, was a wizened elderly woman.
She bore some traits of resemblance with Rebella, but there was a softness to her that Rebella did not have. Also, she was half dead. Literally.
Decay clung to one side of the woman’s face, revealing bone and teeth beneath. The eye on that side was white and half lidded.
There was a strange, putrid, decaying scent as we marched through the garden towards her. SERvants stepped aside from the cluster, and Rebella thrust me forward to the elderly woman as we reached her.
“I’ve brought a card collector!” Rebella announced loudly, but not triumphantly. It was merely a fact.
A woman, middle aged and robed in vibrant red, stepped forward from the side of the throne. “Why would you disturb mother with that?” She had gold earrings, gold paint around her eyes, and hair that was intricately shaped in coils atop her head.
“Maybe she can tell us how to cure mother,” said Rebella coldly, not looking at her sister. Instead she was looking somewhere aroudn their grandmothers’ knees. I could not see what there was to look at there.
“You’re disturbing her,” snapped the sister, but she silenced as the Queen, I supposed she was Queen, lifted a hand. This hand was good, not rotten. It had long nails that were immaculately cared for, and several gold bangles around the wrist.
“Come here,” said the old woman, her one good eye trained one me.