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And now the first chapter of Rose Petals & Snowflakes!
The king of the North Country lay dying. Even his wife and younger daughter, who’d been optimistic to the end, were forced to concede to reality, and they now took turns in a constant vigil at his bedside. His elder daughter, ever the pragmatist, applied herself to matters of state so that their kingdom not fall into ruin.
Of course, the most pressing matter was finding their elder half-brother, on whose shoulders the affairs of state ought to fall.
She had sent messengers to all corners of the land and beyond, and, one by one, they had only returned in vain. Today, however, a man had finally returned with news – and it was troubling news indeed. If he was right – and the uncomfortable knot in the princess’s stomach said he was – then they were in trouble indeed.
And so she tucked the matter away and went in search of her sister. She needed a distraction and figured that her sister, who’d been at their father’s bedside the whole day, could use the same. By the time she’d reached his bedchamber, she’d settled the knot of nerves in her stomach – after she’d nearly worried off her lower lip.
Knocking lightly at the door, she stepped into the room and sighed as she sat down at her sister’s side. “How is he, Mari?”
Snowmari blinked and sat up straight. “Asleep. Keep quiet and don’t wake him – you know that he doesn’t like to hear us talking about him.” She took her sister’s hand. “Oh, Elin! Just look at him! Does he even resemble the father we know and love? And if James – Elin, have you found any news of James?”
Elinrose released a sigh. “I have a lead, and that’s why I need to talk to you. This … it’ll be best if I personally pursue this. I’m leaving in the morning, and I don’t know when I’ll be back, but I’ll return with James when I do. I promise.”
Snowmari sucked in a breath. “Very well. Where is he?”
“Nowhere good, which is why I’ll have to retrieve him myself.” Elinrose put a hand on Snowmari’s shoulder. “Also, it’s Mayblossom’s bedtime, and I think she would like it if we both tucked her in.”
Snowmari frowned, her gaze flicking to their father. “Very well. We can leave a servant with him for a few minutes.” She shook her head. “Oh! But to see him like this, when he was always so strong and…” She took a deep breath and stood. “Let’s go find Mayblossom, yes?”
“Yes,” agreed Elinrose, hooking her arm through her sister’s and guiding her out of the room. “Now, I just want to let you know that I’ve already spoken with Chancellor Markim. You won’t need to worry about affairs of state while I’m away, as he will handle them. I hope to not be gone long … but if I don’t return with James before … well, you know happens, don’t hesitate to hold a coronation for Mayblossom and take the position of regent.”
“Only if I don’t return.” Elinrose held up a hand. “I plan to return with James before the inevitable and not leave you in this position. I just want to make sure that we have the backup plan in place.”
“Right.” Snowmari gave an exaggerated sigh. “It’s just, the way you’re talking … I’m worried, that’s all.”
“Of course, but I’ve already told you that you have nothing to worry about.” Elinrose patted Snowmari’s hand.
She didn’t like patronizing her sister, but Snowmari could overreact with such melodrama over the most minor issues … and that was the last thing that Elinrose wanted right now.
Snowmari released a sigh. “If you say so. You’d better return with him – I don’t know what I’ll do if you don’t.”
“Chancellor Markim will take care of affairs – whether until my return or until Mayblossom comes of age. You will be her regent officially, but he will be your chief advisor. Use him.”
“But shouldn’t you…”
Elinrose pulled them up short as they had reached Mayblossom’s room. “I plan to return with James. Now, no more of this – we don’t want to upset Mayblossom. She may well have the world on her shoulders before long.”
“And yet you stand there, upsetting me!” Snowmari shook her head and pulled away from Elinrose. “Now, look at me! I’m a ball of nerves – how do you expect me to not upset Mayblossom when I have this weighing on my mind?”
“Hey!” Elinrose bit down her frustration, knowing that one of them had to remain calm. “Everything will be fine. But if you don’t want to give Mayblossom her good-night kiss, then, by all means, run back to Father’s side and worry yourself away.”
Snowmari folded her arms over her chest, drawing in a breath. “Fine. Where is James?”
Elinrose took Snowmari by the arm again and pulled her into Mayblossom’s room, where their eight-year-old niece sat on her bed, playing with her dolls. Mayblossom smiled at first, but it melted into a frown as she glanced between her aunts.
“Is something wrong?” Mayblossom hugged one of the dolls to her chest.
“Oh, Aunt Mari and I are just so regretful that we have to come put an end to your game!” Elinrose slipped into a smile as she swept over to the bed and sat down at Mayblossom’s side. “Bedtime, you know.”
Mayblossom gave a slow nod as she reluctantly set her dolls to the side. “All right. I thought Grandpa…”
“Grandpa’s still with us,” said Snowmari, rushing over to sit down on Mayblossom’s other side. “Don’t worry – he’s stubborn and will cling to life as long as he can.”
“Daddy needs to come back home soon.” Mayblossom gave a huge sigh. “I know he doesn’t like to be around me ‘cause I remind him of Momma, but with Grandpa so sick…”
“Your daddy loves you plenty well!” Elinrose countered, tapping Mayblossom’s nose. “He’s just silly and likes to adventure instead of staying here with us. Now, sweet dreams, and don’t worry yourself about it. I’ve already made up my mind that I will be going to find him myself this time and let him know that it’s more than time for him to move on and come home.”
Mayblossom wrinkled her nose but nodded as she tucked herself under the covers. “Good. I just wish…” Here she gave a colossal sigh. “I hope I don’t scare him away once he’s the king. It won’t be any good if he runs away then.”
“I think you eavesdrop more than any little girl ought.” Elinrose pulled the blankets up to the girl’s chin, pressed a kiss to her niece’s forehead, and then stood, shaking her head. “As I said, there’s no reason for you to worry.”
She nodded to Snowmari, who launched into a quiet lullaby. Mayblossom gave a slow sigh, closing her eyes.
Elinrose pinched her lips together as she listened. Mayblossom’s fears weren’t unfounded. Perhaps if Raine, her mother, had survived her birth, then things would have been different, but she hadn’t.
James loved his daughter, Elinrose had no doubt about that, but the truth was, he was sentimental, and Mayblossom was the image of her mother. James had adored Raine, and while that affection did extend to their daughter, the pain of loss still drove him away after only a few weeks with the child.
Indeed, the problem only got worse the older Mayblossom got. The more she looked like her mother. No, the girl had a right to worry. James wouldn’t have the liberty to wander away for adventures once he was king. If he returned home at all in order to become king…
Elinrose balled her hands into fists. Her brother was sentimental and an idiot, and tomorrow she was going to risk her own life and freedom to get him out of the trouble he’d found himself in this time.
But that sentimental idiot was her older brother, and even though it was only by half-blood, she loved him as much as though it were full-blood. She would save his sorry backside, and she would see him on the throne. And then she would face the issue of how to keep him on that throne, rather than gallivanting across the countryside as was his princely wont.
Snowmari’s song ended, and with a few whispered words of comfort, she stood and retreated to Elinrose’s side.
“Good night May-dearest,” she said, twisting into a smile, and Elinrose pried herself out of her thoughts to repeat the words, and two sisters stepped out of the bedroom together.
“Do you have to go find James yourself?” Snowmari protested, hooking an arm through Elinrose’s, as though she could physically anchor her sister to the castle. “Surely some messenger could do just as well. Or … maybe I could go in your place! You know that I can’t do half the things that you do for the kingdom. Let me go! Let me be useful!”
Elinrose bit back a sigh and shook her head. “I wish, but I’ve already considered all of our options. Alas, Mari, but you and James are too much alike, and the trouble he’s in is … tricky. Mayblossom might be able to free him, were she older, but she’s not, and as his only heir, we can’t risk her. No, it has to be me. I leave in the morning, and there will be no further argument.”
Snowmari released a long sigh, tightening her hold of her sister’s arm. “Fine. I … I guess I’ll just stay here. And worry. Do what you can.”
Elinrose forced a smile. “Austere willing, I’ll be back before you even realize I’m gone.”
Of course, Elinrose knew even then that her words were but a cheerful exaggeration. Though she left at the first light of dawn the next morning, she had a journey of two days on horseback before she arrived at the mysterious Forest that formed their country’s border. Rarely had anyone ever stepped into that wood and returned afterward. She couldn’t imagine what had possessed her brother to take the risk, but here she was now.
“None of you are to follow me,” she instructed the soldiers that had accompanied her this far. “You can wait for me a week, but then return to the castle if I haven’t emerged again.”
“Of course, your highness,” said the captain. “Are you sure you want to go in there yourself?”
Elinrose shook her head. “I have to, but thank you for your concern.” With that, she spurred her horse forward into the ominous wood.
Despite the temperature rising as she threaded through the trees, a chill settled over Elinrose. This forest was oddly lit. No sunbeam seemed to penetrate the foliage above, yet a green glow was everywhere, casting shadows at odd angles.
The plant life was odd here as well – though, having grown up in an ice-locked kingdom, Elinrose supposed that the large, leafy trees, vines, and bushes could be perfectly normal in a warmer clime. Still, it set her nerves on end, especially as she stared at the jagged leaves and thorny stems. The very air hung with a sense of foreboding, and the constant rustling in the undergrowth didn’t help.
She tightened her grip on her horse’s reigns. If she could just see what were making the noises…
No, she had to focus. She had to find James, do what she had to do to get him out of here, and then see him back to the castle. If she didn’t escape herself, if she had to remain behind to buy his freedom, then so be it.
But she really hoped that it wouldn’t come to that.
And, first, she had to find him. Elinrose hardly knew how to begin. The Forest was huge. How was she to even know where to begin.
Well, there was nothing to do but to press forward and pray to Austere that she was going in the right direction. People lived here – or so the legends said. She didn’t know how much faith to put into those legends, but what else did she have?
And then it started raining.
It didn’t rain in the North Country; it snowed. And while the canopy of leaves over her helped, it also made for solid streams of water that dumped on her head at the most inopportune moments.
Still, Elinrose pressed forward. She had to find James. She was in the Forest. She’d made her decision. There was no turning back now.
The rain subsided, and a thick mist took its place. The light was fading, so Elinrose decided that it wasn’t worth it to press any further that day. She dismounted, and, not knowing where better to set up camp, she opened her saddlebags to retrieve some jerky and sat down dejectedly on a rock.
What was she doing? Her country was in a critical state, she was the best to lead it, and here she was, chasing after her idiot of a brother who clearly had no respect for the power that was due him. And she was pretty sure that it was too late for her to turn back.
An unexpected crack of thunder tore the air, and her unsecured horse bolted. Elinrose hadn’t even time to leap up and grab the reigns. The mare was gone.
The day was getting worse by the minute. Now she was alone in this Forest without her supplies and little practical knowledge for survival. She wanted to curl up under a rock and cry … but there were no rocks at hand to serve such a purpose. No, she had to press forward and … well, she honestly didn’t know what she was going to do. She didn’t do things on whim and without a plan … but this Forest defied plans.
It was growing dark, so she knew that she needed to find somewhere to sleep for the night. But the ground was wet, a chill had settled into the air, and her horse had taken her blanket and tarp. What was she to do now?
The trees shifted, and another chill shuddered down her spine as they formed into an arching path ahead of her. She dared not take this path, and yet, as she glanced about herself, she found that the Forest had closed on her every other side.
“Foul magic,” she swore under her breath, and then she stood. She had no recourse but forward.
Was this why no one returned from the Forest? She hadn’t even found James yet!
Hiking up her riding skirts, she took one step forward, then another. Then she broke into a run.
She was already lost. Why not follow the path before her?
Then, just as suddenly, she was at a dead end. The trees closed into a curtain before her, and she drew up short.
“What now?” she breathed, gaze darting about, and she drew back in muffled surprise as she saw a pair of eyes glowing from the darkness before her.
“Are you lost, princess?”
Elinrose swallowed down fear at the rough, growling voice.
“Who’s there?” The question came out at a higher pitch than she liked. “How do you know that I’m a princess?”
The answer was a low chuckle that sounded even more like a growl. “I smell the nobility in your blood, and you reek of purpose and quest besides. Are you related to one of the princes we have wandering about? Perhaps you’ve chased after your lover?”
Princes? The thought lodged in her throat.
“I’m looking for my brother,” she admitted. “Our father is dying. Do you know where I might find him … sir?”
There was a sound of crunching and crackling as the mysterious figure drew near. The shadow … did not seem human.
“I may be able to take you to the foolhardy fellow who shares your scent,” the man answered.
But then, he burst out from the tree line, and Elinrose saw that it was, indeed, no man at all, but a great, shaggy bear.
She took another step back, but held her composure in an iron fist.
“You’re a talking bear.”
“And you’re an observant princess.”
Elinrose nodded sharply. “Will you help me find my brother?”
If legend and lore were to be believed, then this bear was as likely to be friend as foe.
“I might,” he answered, with another growling chuckle. “How desperately do you wish to find him?”
He was bargaining. Elinrose knew better than to give in to such a scheme – yet what else could she do? Her brother had to be found, and she was without a horse now.
“I’m afraid that my horse ran off with everything I had of value,” she answered noncommittally.
“Did he, now?” asked the bear, tilting his head to the side. “How unfortunate.”
Elinrose lifted her chin. “Are you patronizing me?”
The bear took a step towards her, giving a growl that sounded strangely – and terrifyingly – like a chuckle. “You have courage, princess. Perhaps I shall take pity on you.”
“I don’t need your pity.”
“Ah, but you do – and your brother as well,” the bear answered. “So does every mortal soul that steps foot inside this Forest. Pity, for they are fools. Come, mount upon my back, and I will take you to your brother, though what good it shall do, I don’t know. Every soul who steps foot in this Forest entangles themselves in a web that is not easily undone.”
He took another step towards her, and every muscle in her body screamed to run, but she held her ground.
“How can I trust you?” she asked.
He gave another growling chuckle. “You already trusted yourself to this forest, and it is a thousand times more dangerous than I could ever be,” he answered. “You will trust me because you must. Without my help, you have no hope of finding your brother – no hope of finding your way out of this Forest.”
“And you’re doing this out of pity?” she asked.
“Does it surprise you that a bear can possess a heart?” he asked. “Did you not know that our hearts are the largest in the Forest? Come now, let us find your brother. If I have heard correctly, your father’s life drains away as we speak. There is no time to waste.”
He was upon her now. Even on his all-fours, he stared her in the eye. And yet, that seemed to reassure her, for though his mouth was filled with teeth sharp indeed, those eyes were strangely gentle. Human, even.
“You’re a trifle large for me to mount,” she pointed out.
“True enough, but we must manage,” he answered. He turned from her and crouched down so his belly was against the forest floor.
She grimaced as she took hold of a large clump of his fur, hoping that she wasn’t hurting him, and climbed onto the beast’s back in a heartbeat. In the rain, the bear smelled strongly of wet dog, and Elinrose knew that her dress was ruined for good.
Well, that was why she was wearing an old dress.
“Hold tight,” the bear instructed, and then he took off at a bounding run.
The Forest blurred into a streak of gray-green, and she held tightly to two fistfuls of his fur, not knowing what else to cling to. He didn’t protest, so she supposed it must be all right. At length, the bear slowed to a walk, pausing every few moments to sniff the air.
“So, what is your name?” she asked after a moment. When he didn’t answer, she continued. “Come now, I can’t just call you ‘bear,’ now can I?”
“Bear will do,” he answered. “Now, quiet, princess. We’re near your brother.”
Elinrose clamped her mouth closed in a frown.