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in the woods somewhere

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The palace servants had learned to fear Alice Toner. Even at seven years old she was a whirlwind of trouble. The aroma of fresh rich dough had been filling the castle all afternoon and Alice was on the hunt.

The kitchen was bustling, as it always was right before dinner time, and Alice was able to take cover in the chaos. She could have set her sight on easy prey, the bread baked this morning or the cakes left over from afternoon tea, but she liked a challenge. A dozen cookies fresh out of the oven, steam still rising off them, were piled high on a plate right next to the head pastry chef. Alice prowled through the kitchen, gracefully avoiding knocking into anyone. She crouched under the table then pounced.

A horrible scream escaped the pastry chef, but it was too late. Alice had the plate of cookies in hand and was sprinting from the kitchen. “Young lady, you bring those back this instant!”

That made Alice laugh. She wasn’t a lady, she was the daughter of the blacksmith and a stable girl. She liked the idea of being a lady, someone who belonged in the court. Maybe one day.

Alice didn’t stop running until she got to the royal chambers. Shifting the cookies to one hand, she lifted her hand to knock but paused. She attempted to smooth out the wrinkles in her tunic and breeches, it almost worked. With a deep breath, she knocked on the doors.

“Awaiting the presence of her royal highness,” Alice announced in an exaggerated fancy accent.

The door swung open and Alice was pulled inside.

“What have I told you about titles?” Basira crossed her arms over her chest, a strong pout on her lip.

“That you don’t like ‘em,” Daisy said with a toothy grin, “that’s why I use ‘em.”

“I could have you executed, you know.” Basire lunged for the cookies but Alice held them high above her head. Even though she was only a month older, Alice was several inches taller than Basira.

“No, you couldn’t,” Alice said, sticking her tongue out, “it’s outlawed.”

“Well, a princess can do whatever she wants.” Basira stood on her tip-toes, reaching for the cookies.

“Anything?” Alice challenged. She took a step back, lowering the cookies.

“Anything.” Basire placed her hands on her hip with a noble grace. At that moment she really did look like a princess.

“Even say ‘please’?” Alice smirked, holding the cookies out to Basira.

Basira puffed out her chest and stretched her arm out. “Oh, Alice, my humble servant, what lengths you must have gone to for this great snack, would you do me the greatest honor of ple-” Alice cut Basira’s dramatic speech off by shoving a cookie in her mouth.

“That’s enough of that,” Alice sighed. She hated fancy talk just as much as Basira.

Alice walked over to the plush carpet and took a seat. Basira joined her and they devoured the cookies with vicious speed. Once finished, the two sat on the carpet, crumbs smeared over their face and hands.

“It’s a good thing you came along,” Basira said, “I heard that the knights when hunting today and I hate having deer for dinner.”

Alice didn’t say that she actually likes fresh game, especially deer. “Why don’t you like titles?” she asked instead.

Basira puzzled over the question for a moment. “I guess,” she said, “I don’t like feeling like I’m better than everyone.”

“What?” Alice shoved her gently. “That’s the whole point of being a princess!”

“No, it’s not.” Basira shoved her back, harder. “When I’m queen, I’m going to the noblest, wisest, bestest ruler this kingdom has ever had.”

“Well, when I’m a knight-” Alice jumped up, pointing her finger like a sword “-everyone will know I’m better than them because I’ll be the bestest sword fighter in the land and the kingdom will be safe.”

Basira laughed, covering her mouth with her hand as her mother said to. “Girls can’t be knights.” She didn’t mean to discourage she knew that Alice would take it as a challenge.

And Basira was right. “Well, when you’re queen, you’ll change that.” Alice crawled closer to Basire, almost pressing their faces together. “You’ll be the bestest queen.”

Alice and Basira stuck to their ambitions. They were still very close, (too close, according to the nobility) but they had duties to fulfill.

Each year brought more and more tutors for Basira and each birthday came bearing more strange and fantastic books. Alice would sneak into her room late at night and beg for Basira to read to her. Sometimes Basira would pick one of Alice’s favorites, a noble knight slaying the monster and saving the princess.

“That’ll be us someday,” Alice would leer.

“I’d slay the dragon before you even got your armor on,” Basira would scoff.

Sometimes Basira would pick an ancient text in a language unknown to Alice. Basira would chant the words like an ancient prayer and it sent shivers down Alice’s spine. She ended up picking up bits of Greek, Latin, Arabic, Sanskrit, and others that a stable girl had no use for.

Alice had to help her mother in the stables. It was torturous. She wanted to be riding the horses into battle, not mucking out their stales. The squires mocked Alice for her short hair and dirty breeches, but she could brush them off, they were just dumb boys anyway. It was the knights that bothered her, they wouldn’t even spare her a glance. She wanted to punch them square in the jaw. She did that once and it landed her in the stocks for three days. Alice thought it was funny, Basira didn’t get over it for a month.

Stable work wasn’t all bad though.

When the knights came back from a hunt, the stable was charged with energy. The horses were skittish, so worked up that steam radiating off their hides. Their hooves would bang on the stone floor like a drum and the hounds would howl along to the beat. It excited Alice to no end. The knights would come home with breathless smiles and Alice took delight in the envy they sparked in her.

Not all the squires were cruel to Alice. Calvin Benchley wouldn’t talk to her when the other boys were around, but when they weren’t, they were the best of friends (besides Basira, of course). For Alice’s eleventh birthday, her father made her a sword and every day since then, Calvin helped train her.

They’d meet outside the castle walls in a clearing. It was small, just a scrap of grass and dirt, but if they hopped the fence to the south they could get into the cemetery, but they didn’t. And if they went the other way they could get into the woods. The fence on that side was broken and jagged, but it was collapsed enough that it would be easy to climb over it, but they didn’t. Alice and Calvin’s parents had forbidden them from playing there. The woods were too dark and too many people went missing there. Too many people wanted to go missing there.

The first month of their friendship, Calvin taught Alice all the basics of sword fighting. The second month, they started to spare and Alice would come home with cuts, bruises, and a giant smile. The third month, Calvin came home with cuts and bruises of his own. In the fourth month, Alice started winning.

They had been in the clearing when there had been shouting from the woods. Crashes. Violence. Then a long silence. Alice and Calvin stood frozen.

“I dare you to go in,” Alice said, surprised by the volume of her own voice. It broke that awful silence with such confidence, it felt just as powerful as her sword.

“What?” Calvin’s voice was much less confident.

“Be a knight.” Alice pushes Calvin towards the woods. “Someone could be in trouble, your job is to save them.”

“Then you do it!” Calvin’s knees buckled as he stared at the woods. “You’re so eager to prove yourself.”

“I dared you first.” Alice pushed him again.

“Fine.” And then Calvin climbed over the fence and into the woods and it was Alice’s fault.

When he didn’t come back, Alice decided he was just trying to spook her. But after fifteen minutes she decided he wasn’t. She wanted to run away and get her mother, but she was frightened of getting in trouble, so instead, she followed Calvin over the fence.

The woods were dark, the light filtered through the thick canopy of leaves, creating a light so green it was black. Alice followed the only pair of footprints she could find and they lead her deep into the woods. She didn’t know how long she’d been walking, could have been minutes or hours, but eventually, she found it. The first two dead bodies she had ever seen. They looked like they had attacked each other with broken glass. One lay impaled on a broken bottle, still holding the long shard of glass that jutted out of the other’s throat. There was blood everywhere. Alice felt a rush of fear and a strange sort of excitement.

Calvin stood ten feet away, staring at Alice with vacant eyes. A hunched naked figure stood behind him, cloaked in shadow. The only thing Alice could see of it was its pale flesh and the vivid red of cuts and injuries marking its hairy hide. Every inch of its body appeared to be covered in open wounds, but no blood seemed to flow from them. The thing was utterly still, save for a lipless, scabby mouth, which moved so fast it was almost a blur, silently mouthing words that only Calvin could hear. She knew they were for him, because with each movement of its jaw, the thing’s long, pointed black tongue would shoot out and flick itself into his ear. He was completely expressionless as that crooked, cut-up figure whispered to him and flicked at his ear with a barbed tongue.

Then Calvin’s eyes turned to Alice. Without hesitation or expression, he began running, sprinting right at her. Until that moment, Alice hadn’t noticed the puncture wounds in his chest. It looked like a bite mark but she’d never seen a creature with a mouth that big. Alice tried to get away, but he was faster, and slammed into her, pushing off her feet and into the ground. Alice tried to get out from under Calvin, rolling in the dirt. She was able to turn herself onto her stomach but quickly realized the mistake of exposing the back of her neck. Calvin bit her, teeth unnaturally sharp dragging across her skin.

Then it went dark.

Alice woke up in the physician’s office. Basira kneeled next to her cot, her hand clutched in her own. The physician stood above Alice with a wet cloth in hand. Her neck hurt like hell.

“What-what happened?” Alice croaked, realizing just how parched her throat was.

“You fell.” The physician leaned over Alice and wiped the back of her neck. The coolness of the rag did nothing against the searing pain that overtook her whole body. “A rock lodged in the back of your neck, you’re lucky Calvin Benchley found you.”

“C-Calvin?” Alice’s voice cracked again and she can only wheeze out the rest of her thought.

“Drink some water.” Basira gently raised a glass to Alice’s lips. Alice messily chugs down the whole glass, sputtering and coughing through it.

“Slow down,” Basira said. Her voice was sad, such a departure from her other empty orders she gave Alice. Alice slowed without even thinking. She focused on Basira to block out the dryness of her throat, the pain in her neck, the thrumming of her blood.

Once she finished the glass, Alice tried again. “Calvin, is he alive?”

“Yes,” the physician spoke slowly like a parent dealing with a child asking ridiculous questions, “he was the one who brought you in.”

“But the wound in his chest,” Alice said, trying to sit up. The pain was excruciating but she needed to know where he was, needed to get away.

“Alice, calm down.” Basira held her hand tighter, pulling her back into the cot.

The physician tsked at Alice. “Worry not, there’s no wound in his chest.” He turned to Basira and put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s not uncommon for women to be in hysterics after an injury.”

Alice and Basira shared a look. It was a look they were both familiar with. It marked who Basira should fire when she becomes queen.

“You’ll need to rest for three days and keep the wound clean.” The physician pocked at the mark on her neck. “I worry it may be infected, but with what, I can’t be sure.”

Alice swatted his hand away from her neck. The wound pulsed like it was trying to take over her entire body, like it was only a matter of time till that wounded flesh was all her being.

Basira brushed her fingers over the mark on Alice’s neck, her fingers gentle and more inquisitive. “It looks kinda like a daisy.” Her voice was so kind that Alice forgot about the pain for a moment.

Alice grabbed Basira’s hand, lowering it away from her wound. “I like that.” Alice let her hand linger over Basira’s a moment longer than needed.

Basira insisted that Alice stayed at the physician’s office. She claimed that Alice’s house was too far a walk for her while she was still recovering. In reality, it was just too far for Basira to sneak to. So for three days, Basira stayed by Alice’s side, reading her books and making sure the physicians were doing their best work.

Alice liked what Basira said about the mark so Basira called her Daisy. It started as a joke but Alice liked it so much that she decided that that’s what she’ll be called. Daisy, it sounds so gentle. It made her feel strong, to know that the soft nickname came from a bloody wound. And she liked to feel strong, to be in control.

Daisy stopped hanging out with Calvin Benchley. Once she was free from bed rest, she didn’t go looking for him. She didn’t go back to the clearing or the woods. A month later, there was a tournament for the squires. Calvin won, easily. Five squires were injured so badly that they would never be knights. One squire was killed. Daisy can still see his blood. She can still feel how her heart raced and the guilt that came too late.

Calvin Benchley disappeared that night. Daisy knew where he was but she wouldn’t go looking.

Her wound scarred over but the physicians never said anything about the infection.

Daisy kept her sword on her at all times. She’d mostly given up on knighthood. Mostly. Her skill was beyond that of the palace guards and a few of the knights. But she was a girl with no noble blood and no formal training. Even if Basira did honor her promise she made when she was seven, Daisy would never get any of the respect that came with knighthood.

Daisy was going to see Basira. They didn’t have to sneak around anymore (the palace guards learned the hard way how skilled Daisy was with a sword) and it was rare to see the princess without her stable girl. Basira already had a ball for her eighteenth birthday but Daisy wanted to do something special. Just the two of them.

She stopped in front of the doors to Basira’s chambers, hiding a parcel behind her back, before knocking. “Awaiting the presence of her royal highness,” Daisy announced in an exaggerated fancy accent.

The doors flew open and Daisy was pulled inside. “What have I told you about titles?” Basira laughed. Eleven years ago, she’d be livid at Daisy using her title but now it’s become their joke.

Daisy was about to bite back something witty but the words flounder in her mouth. Basira was wearing a red headscarf that looked spectacular with her blue dress. “What are you wearing?” Daisy thanked every god she could think of that words came out as a joke and not a girlish gasp.

“Oh, this?” Basira fidgeted with the hem of her scarf. “I’m an adult now so I figured it’d be a good time to start wearing one. Do you like it?”

Basira looked radiant. The red was perfect with her skin and the scarf framed her face so well. She looked like the women in the portraits hung on the walls of the castle. She seemed so mature and Daisy suddenly felt very silly with her sword from when she was eleven. Suddenly titles didn’t feel like a joke anymore. Basira was a princess and Daisy would do anything to serve her.

“It’s nice.” Daisy pulled her eyes away. Fuck, she better not be blushing. “A little girly for my taste.”

“Isn’t everything,” Basira laughed and Daisy could feel her breath on her face. She took a step closer to Daisy, hands still clutched over her wrist.

“But, it’s uh nice,” Daisy breathed, her voice barely a whisper, “yeah, it’s really nice.”

“Is there a reason for your visit tonight?” Basira gave Daisy a soft smile. Her fingers brushed the inside of her wrist and Daisy shuddered.

“Umm, yeah.” Daisy’s throat was suddenly dry. “I-um-actually wanted to give you something.”

“Oh?” Basira’s hand loosened on Daisy’s wrist.

Daisy took a step back and pulled the parcel from behind her back. “Happy Birthday.”

“Daisy, you really didn’t have to do anything,” Basira said, pushing the parcel back towards Daisy.

“I know.” Daisy put the parcel in Basira’s hand, folding her hands over it. “But I wanted to.”

“Thank you.” Basira slowly unwrapped the gift.

In her hand was a dagger. The handle was a clean white, carved from bone. Its blade was double-edged, perfectly balanced, and sharp as hell. On one side of the blade, a daisy was inscribed and on the other was a crown. Daisy’s father had been teaching her to use the forge.

“It’s beautiful,” Basira breathed, eyes transfixed on the dagger.

“Do you like it?” Daisy bit her lip nervously, glancing from Basira to the dagger.

“I’ll keep it with me always.” Basira strapped the knife to her belt.

“I mean, that’s why I gave it to you.” Daisy could feel her face heating up. “When you’re queen, you never know when someone will try something and I won’t be there to protect you and god knows that the guards can’t-”

Basira rolled her eyes at Daisy’s rambling. She grabbed her face and pulled her into a kiss. Daisy instantly relaxed and leaned into the kiss. They moved closer, arms wrapped around each other.

Basira pulled back, resting her forehead on Daisy’s. “Thank you.” Her breath ghosted over Daisy’s still tender lips.

“For the knife or the kiss?” Daisy laughed and Basira could feel the vibrations in her chest. She wanted to kiss her again so bad but this had to be said.

“For everything.” Basira weaved their hands together. Daisy’s palms were rough and calloused from work. They felt nice against her soft skin. “For being my partner, my knight.”

Daisy laughed again, drawing Basira closer. She liked being wrapped in Daisy’s arms, it made her feel held. “Where would a knight be without her queen?” Daisy said, her eyes shining with tears.

“Wait, don’t cry.” Basira lifted her free hand to wipe Daisy’s tears away. “What’s wrong?”

“If anyone saw us like this, you’d be in big trouble.” Daisy laughed sadly, tears pooling in her eyes. “The princess and the stable girl.”

Basira gently pushed Daisy towards a sofa, sitting her down then kneeling in front of her. “I promise that as long as I’m alive, no harm will come to you.” Basira pulled Daisy’s hand to her chest, letting her feel her beating heart. It was a promise.

“Who cares about me?” Daisy’s voice was a pathetic whine. “What will happen to you?”

“I’m a princess-” Basire surged forward to cup Daisy’s face “-no one can touch me unless I allow it.”

"May I?" Daisy's voice was so soft that Basira almost burst into tears. For all her courage and ambition, she was scared. Scared that she'd be abanded and forgotten, scared that she'd never live up to the honor of a knight, scared that her princess would become a queen without her.

"Of course," Basira whispered, fingers tracing over Daisy's jawline. "Until the end of time, only you."

Daisy kissed her again. There was much more force behind this kiss than the last. Basira returned it with equal measure. “I’ll be by your side,” Daisy promised, between kisses.

“And I’ll be by yours,” Basira said before pressing her lips to Daisy’s again.

It was a month before Basira’s coronation and the palace was in chaos with preparations underway. The palace staff had to prepare a party big enough to celebrate the princess’s twenty-first birthday and the start of a new era. There was a lot to do. It was the perfect time for a princess to slip out of the castle walls and to the local blacksmith.

Daisy had taken the job when her father died. A fever had spread through the kingdom two years ago and taken many citizens, the king included. Basira’s mother had acted as queen until Basira came of age.

As a child, Basira had resented Daisy for being exactly one month older and six inches taller. Now, Basira felt that Daisy was the one who had any right to resent her. Her birthday always got overshadowed by the preparations of lavish balls to celebrate Basira but never forgotten. Basira made sure of that. It was for the better, Daisy didn’t like parties anyway.

Basira was going to do something big for Daisy’s birthday this year. The box in her pocket may have been small but for all Basira cared it held the world. Daisy wouldn’t be a stable girl or a blacksmith anymore but a queen (and eventually a knight). They’d have to wait a little bit to tie the knot while Basira changed some laws but it would be worth it.

When Basira got to the blacksmith, the first thing she noticed was that the forge was dark. The blacksmith was always warm, uncomfortably so if Basira stood too close to the forge, but it always made it homely, it made her feel safe. Now, as she approached, Basira felt cold like a baby deer in the middle of winter. She wanted to bolt but couldn’t. Something was wrong and Daisy needed her.

The second thing she noticed was that the door was ajar.

The third thing she noticed was all the blood. Inside the blacksmith was a body with its throat ripped out. Basira kneeled over it and a wave of relief swept through her. It wasn’t Daisy. It was one of the knights. He had puncture wounds in his chest. It looked like a bite mark but Basira had never seen a creature with a mouth that big.

“Daisy!” Basira shouted into the house but the only voice that responded was her echo. The blood was still red, whatever did this must be close. She had to find it, before it found Daisy.

Basira rushed outside but the surrounding area was empty with no footprints beside her own. She ran behind the building but knew that the effort would be in vain. All that stood behind the blacksmith was the woods. No one came back from the woods.

In the far distance, she could see two men carrying a coffin into the woods. Even from so far off, Basira could see blood on their shoes. Despite her better judgment, she ran after them. No matter how hard her legs pounded, the men stayed far in front of her, moving at a shamble, coffin hoisted high on their shoulders. Basira paused, only for a moment, when the dark of the woods became too thick. And just like that, they were gone.

Basira wanted to fall to the ground and scream but she couldn’t. Not yet. She walked out of the woods, following her own trail. Only then did she notice that the men left no footprints.

When she could feel the sun on her face again, Basira fell to the ground and sobbed.

It was Daisy’s mother who found her like that. She calmed Basira down enough to dry her tears. Then she asked what happened and all the tears came back. The only explanation Basira could give was “She’s gone,” over and over again.

Basira’s mother wouldn’t allow for a search party. The kingdom couldn’t spare any manpower, not so close to the coronation. So Basira was crowned queen without Daisy by her side.

Once Basira was queen she sent search party after search party into the woods looking for Daisy. Some came up empty and some never came back. But none brought Daisy home so she sent more out.

It was Daisy’s mother who convinced her to stop.

“She’s gone, your majesty,” she said.

“She can’t be.” Basira’s voice was level, her voice was always level. If she let people how truly hurt she was, the kingdom would collapse with her. She had a duty to her people. She had a greater duty to Daisy. Basira would not fail them.

“Please,” Daisy’s mother begged, “let my daughter rest in peace.”

So no more search parties were sent. Basira got a gravestone carved for Daisy but she would not bury an attempt coffin. Not after what she saw in the woods. It rained the day they held her funeral. It was a relief that the sky would hide Basira’s tears.

On the day Daisy would have turned twenty-two, Basira took the ring out of its box and tied it to a chain that she wore around her neck. She would never forget but she had a kingdom to run.