Alasin stumbled out through the servant’s doorway at the base of the castle, trying to keep from hysterics. She had nearly been attacked by one of the guards, who had to be restrained by his partner.
“Let ‘er go, matey, she ain’t worth it. Orders from th’ queen.”
“You murdering harlot!” screamed the other man. “What if they come for us? What if it’s war? If we die because of you I will haunt you until the end of your days!”
Alasin would normally have slain him for his insolence then and there. But the hatred in the eyes of both men and her mother’s shrieks ringing in her ears made her race, sobbing, for the nearest exit. As fresh air hit her face, she looked around in a frenzy. She had never been outside the castle by herself.
To her right, the castle’s outer wall stretched into the darkness of night what seemed forever. To her left, it went on another ten feet before terminating in the north tower’s bulge outward. Before her, a grassy hill sloped gently down some hundred yards or so before the houses of the kingdom’s townsfolk began in earnest. Among them, she could see the shapes of her subjects moving, living, going about their lives. She had never feared them, but her mother’s banishing words and the cries of the guard she had encountered were fresh in her mind.
She made her way along the path leading from the front gates towards the huts of the town, expecting at any moment to hear someone shout “The princess! Let’s get her!” No shout came, and she found herself walking down the little town’s main street. She searched in her mind for its name and could not get it to come to mind. She knew though that many of the people in this town were servants and workers at the castle during the day and so lived in close proximity.
Of course, Alasin thought, instinctively leaning into the darkest part of the shadows, the more castle workers there were in this town, the more likely there would be someone who would recognize her.
A rustling sound caught her attention as she passed a house and she stopped, turning toward it. The sound came from between two houses and sounded large. Larger than a mouse. Her ears strained to the breaking point, she thought she could hear breathing.
“’ere now… wot’s this, then?”
Alasin whirled, stifling a scream as her hand flew to her poisoned blade, remembering too late that it was back in her bedchamber. There was a scratching sound and sparks caught the wick of a lantern. The flame grew and illuminated a dumpy woman holding it, dressed in a brown smock with her hair in a bun. When she smiled at Alasin, it was with three teeth.
“A t’ousand ‘pologies miss, I surely dint mean t’scare ye.”
Alasin expected her to continue stammering excuses and prostrate herself at Alasin’s feet, begging forgiveness from royalty as was customary. Instead, she continued to smile at Alasin, clearly waiting for the princess to speak.
“That’s all right,” she said, and tried on a smile. It seemed to fit, so she continued. “My name is Al…uh…”
“Aluh, that’s a n’usual name,” said the woman. “They call me Madam Flood.”
Alasin opened her mouth to correct her, then realized that Madam Flood had no idea she was speaking to the disgraced princess of the kingdom. She shut her mouth with a snap and pasted a smile on her face.
“But what,” Madam Flood continued, “is a girl like y’self doin’ out ‘ere alone at this hour, an’ all gussied up!” The old woman gestured, first at the sky and enveloping darkness then at Alasin’s clothing, her royal dresses more suitable for a fancy dress ball than simple townsfolk. “You know t’ain’t safe ‘ere no more, specially not at night!”
Alasin’s eyes were blanks in the lantern light. “Isn’t it?”
Madam Flood sighed and tutted. “Come wi’ me, foolish girl. Less get indoors where’s safe n’I’ll tell ye some t’ings ’bout the kingdom you livin’ in.”
Alasin’s eyes flashed at the insult and her hand went to her dagger again before realizing again that it was gone, and for the first time, realized that she had nowhere else to go. A tear ran from an eye as she dropped her hand and followed the old woman.
Down the row of tiny houses she followed Madam Flood until she came to the last one on the row. Madam Flood mounted three rickety steps and pushed through a flap of fur that served as her door. Alasin grimaced as she followed, feeling the shaggy coat rub against her skin. She found herself in a dark little room with a lumpy looking cot, a fireplace with a rocking chair before it, and a small table. A single cupboard hung on the wall opposite the door beside a small window with dirty panes.
“Well well m’dear,” Madam Flood said, setting the lantern on the table and stoking the fire so a cheery glow filled the room. “Where’ve you been that you d’no what’s ‘appening ’round ‘ere? ‘n what’re y’doin’ wanderin’ aroun’ in the’ middle o’ the’ night, drest like that? Young gel like you oughta be home wi’ her family.”
“Never mind that,” Alasin said, and moved closer to the fire, warming her hands as it increased in size. “What’s going on outside? Why isn’t it safe?”
Madam Flood shook her head and settled into her rocking chair with obvious relief. “Wan’ t’know what I thinks, ’tis dark wizards.”
Alasin’s face must have shown skepticism rather than incomprehension for Madam Flood leaned forward, nodding hard for emphasis. “Oh aye Miss Aluh, th’ dark wizards be ’round doin’ their wicked deeds, you can bet y’teeth. ‘ow else can y’explain…” she broke off, looking at the window as though someone could be peeping through at them, before looking back at Alasin and finishing in a hoarse whisper “…people creepin around…like animals…actin’ strange…ol’ farmer Supik sez ‘is foot was ‘arf torn off by a crazy git ‘oo acted like a mad thing, eatin’ dead mice in ol’ Supik’s hut.”
The princess felt her stomach crawl at the thought of herself wandering around in the darkness, and the rustling sounds she had heard between the two houses before meeting Madam Flood. “What happened?”
“Well, Supik ain’t the’ type to bandy words wid a freak like that’n,” Madam Flood said briskly, rocking back in her chair. “’e grabbed the nearest rock ‘n put paid to ‘im in the’ face, sev’ral times I ‘eard.”
“How awful,” Alasin said, her voice faint. Her knees buckled. Madam Flood was by her side in a moment and turned Alasin so her fall was more of a controlled sinking into the mattress.
“’ere ‘ere dearie, there I am tellin’ horror stories when yew need t’be gettin’ some rest, ” Madam Flood said, laying Alasin down on the bed. “Y’need yer rest n’you could do a lot worse’n this bed ‘ere. T’ain’t much but is better’n some c’n boast. Yew don’ wanna be goin’ out ’til is morn,” Pulling the blankets up to Alasin’s chin, she smiled her three-toothed smile at the princess.
“Thank you… Madam Flood,” Alasin murmured, already half asleep.
“Think nothin’ of it, Miss Aluh,” said Madam Flood, returning to her chair. “I’ll be ‘ere when you’ve rested yer eyes.”
Alasin started awake, the darkness complete around her as she wondered where she was and how she had gotten there. As she lay, staring into the void, she began to remember. She had been banished and taken in by a woman. She had fallen asleep and the woman had been tending the fire. But now the little hut was dark and cold, and the fire was nothing but a few glowing embers which put off no heat.
Throwing the blankets off of her, Alasin rose to her feet and began groping her way toward what she recalled as being the chair in which her hostess had planted herself. There was no noise in the hut, no sense of another. Another step and her feet found the table, solid and immobile. Cursing under her breath at the world in general, Alasin navigated around the table and to the rocking chair, which sat heavy on the floor, also immobile. There was no breathing. Her heart froze.
“Madam Flood?” Alasin said, her voice tentative in the pitch blackness.
There was no answer.
Silence responded. Alasin reached out a reluctant hand, contacting Madam Flood’s shoulder before she expected to. The flesh was stiff below its garments. Stiff and cold.
“Madam Flood!” Alasin shook the unresponsive shoulder, knowing it was pointless, hoping it would not be. Her hopes were in vain. Madam Flood would never respond to another entreaty again.
Alasin stood in the dark for some moments, listening to the absolute silence, willing the corpse sitting in the chair to reanimate, to waken, to move, to stand and cheerily tend to the nearly-dead fire. When it became obvious this would not be occurring, Alasin forced herself to move to the fire. She had never stoked a fire in her life, but had witnessed it enough times to know the basic principles. Groping around by the hearth, she found a bundle of dry, brittle twigs and tossed them on the coals before leaning forward to breathe on them. Why, she did not know, but she had seen it done a number of times in the castle, and knew it to be the thing to do.
The coals brightened under her breath, shriveling the first of the dried twigs with their heat. She continued breathing on them, encouraged by the brightening glow. As she took in her breath to exhale again, the twigs burst into flames. She let out a little squeak and threw more twigs on, which were speedily consumed. Looking around, she saw smaller pieces of wood stacked near the fire and threw two of them on the fire. It almost went out, but flared up when she resumed blowing on it. Within a few moments, she had a fire burning, banishing the worst of the shadows.
Alasin stood and turned, looking at Madam Flood. The shadows hid much of the woman’s face, but the lack of movement was apparent, even in the low, flickering light. Madam Flood was dead, a fact which was made more apparent when a rodent scurried out of her robes to stare, beady-eyed at Alasin.
The princess screamed and backpedaled, ramming her legs into the table. Appendages smarting, she wrenched open the door and fled, sobbing. In her home, Madam Flood continued to sit and grin at the ceiling, unblinking, even as the rodent ventured back onto her lap, up her chest and to her face, where it began nibbling the soft meat of her eye.