It was late and Alice had just begun to fall asleep when she heard the screams outside her window again. Her eyes shot open, but against her own will she lie paralyzed. Her conscious brain immediately knew what was happening, but her body didn’t seem to want to accept it. A deep feeling of dread encompassed her entirety in a way that felt like she might never move again. This was the kind of dread she had already experienced too many times in her short life.
Once when she realized while stuck up high in a tree that the only way down was to jump. Another while waiting for her mother to return home from a trip weeks after her scheduled arrival. Then a few years later, when she had stolen a flower from Millie, her governess, and perhaps ruined Mille’s life forever. And lastly, every time she hears the screams outside her window. This was the kind of dread that skipped past the flesh and went straight for the bones.
As soon as she felt her legs begin to regain their consciousness, she threw off her comforter and headed for the throne room where she was sure her step-father, Stroat, would be.
“Alice don’t,” a small voice came from a cracked door to her left. She hesitated and Peter, her younger brother, took advantage of it. “He’s got it under control. Just let him do his job.”
This made her angry. Her step-father took sole control of the kingdom of Nimf after her mother, Winifred, failed to return from her trip to Klam, the Kingdom closest north to them, last year. And Alice felt that he was running her country into the ground in her mother’s absence. Winifred always took a more hands-on approach to problems. Her step-father, prefered to let people figure things out for themselves. And well, that was the nice way of putting it.
The screams started three years ago, when the Eeries first invaded. They came dressed head to toe in black and brought with them god-like speed, agility and a fighting skill that could only have been described as other-worldly. They left with as many young girls that they could get their hands on. Alice didn’t know why they came and she didn’t think anyone else did either, but what she did know was that they were unstoppable. No one stood a chance against them. As soon as they knew where you were, they found you and they took you. Parents would do their best to hide their children and her mother, the Queen, did her best to help them in their attempt, but it didn’t always work. In fact, it very often didn’t work. And while the Eeries didn’t seem to want to kill, it was clear that they would if anyone tried to stand between them and what they wanted. And as soon as they took the girls, they never returned with them. They only returned to take more. Hundreds of people died on each of these nights in an attempt to protect the girls. Mostly fathers and brothers and sometimes mothers.
“If he has it under control then why will hundreds of people end up dead in the morning?” Alice asked through gritted teeth. She looked behind her to see Peter cowering against his door. He didn’t often stand up to his sister, he didn’t often need to. They almost always see eye to eye. So when he did, he found himself shaking in his fuzzy white and gold slippers. His brown eyes were wide and he reminded her of their old dog Kota when they first brought him home from the breeder. Afraid, confused, and small. Her shoulders fell slightly and her eyes softened.
“I don’t want you to get in trouble again,” he said. She walked over towards him and placed her hand on his shoulder and squatted down so she could see him better. He was a foot shorter than her and six years younger.
“Don’t worry about me okay? You just worry about you. Go read those history books that you love. That helps calm you down right?” she asked and as she did they heard a harsh scream make its way through Peter’s closed window. He always had his closed during the night. Alice left hers open. Quickly she wrapped him in a hug and she could feel his body quiver and his breaths shorten. “It’s going to be okay. We’re safe here. We have the roses in the garden. Nothing is going to happen to you okay?”
The white roses were supposed to keep people safe from the eeries. They concealed a location from the eeries in ways that no one quite understood. It was as if it told them that there are no females in this vicinity. The Queen believed it had something to do with the flowers unique scent masking ability. The eeries were known to have an uncommon sense of smell. This was all of course speculation.
The white roses themselves are known to be extremely difficult to make. Her mother and step-father brought home a few dozen every month. At first they would place them in a few warehouses and have all the young girls in town go to one of the locations and huddle around the roses. But that backfired one night when an eerie found one of the warehouses and took all 527 girls. This created violent protests in the streets. People were angry because it was the government’s idea to do this in the first place. Riots broke out. People got hurt, and a group of particularly angry citizens attempted to steal the white roses from the palace’s garden, and when that didn’t work they tried to burn it to the ground. After that it was decided that it was best to give them out to people and let them figure out what to do with them. Although with not enough roses to meet the demand it was decided by Alice’s step-father, the King, that they would be sold to the highest bidder. Understandably, most people couldn’t afford them.
Alice let go of Peter and walked further into the hallway. Peter didn’t protest and she didn’t look back this time. She didn’t want to see his face right now. She became soft when she was around Peter. His large puppy-dog eyes didn’t allow her any other option. She couldn’t be soft right now. She needed to be strong and anger kept her strong.
She walked into the throne room without hesitation, and her footsteps didn’t falter when her step-father’s eyes narrowed at the sight of her. He was sitting on top of a golden throne with a pen in his hand and papers on his lap. His sword was hung up on the wall behind him. He had a long brown beard that had strands of grey speckled here and there which gave him an outward appearance of wisdom. He stood only 5 foot 4, but was rarely noted for his small stature because he so often was found a top large stages, horses, or thrones.
“Go back to sleep Alice,” he said to her. But not in the way that a father might tell his 16-year-old daughter. It was much more in the way that a leader might order a follower. She didn’t move.
“How can I? How can I while the streets run red with our peoples blood…. Your people’s blood? Do you even care?” she asked. And while it wasn’t particularly loud, the room was large and had no furniture in it except for the throne, and so the sound of her voice bounced off the walls, reverberating.
“I will not ask you again,” he said quietly. This infuriated her more, but she knew it was a bluff.
“How can you just sit here? Without even a sword at your side? Have you given up? What will a pen and paper do against these men?” she asked, her voice rising.
“Listen you little whiny brat! Get back into bed before I throw you out and let the eeries deal with you,” he yelled while slamming his fist on the desk. Papers slowly drifted to the floor.
“I will not! You may have given up, but I haven’t! You promised them you would to do something and yet you sit here writing letters! I haven’t seen you leave the castle in months!” she shouted and he stood up and grabbed his sword. Alice’s anger waned.
“If you don’t get out of my sight in less than three seconds I’ll have your head!” he said. While he had threatened her with violence more times than she could count he had never actually grabbed his sword before. She was partly convinced that he didn’t even know how to use it.
“My mother would kill you if–” she began but was cut off.
“Your mother isn’t here,” he said. And she could tell that he enjoyed saying it. She took in a deep breath as anger fumed in the pit of her stomach and wondered how much she could get away with saying.
“You’re right, because if she was here people wouldn’t be dying,” she said.
Right as she did he unsheathed his sword and jumped from his throne. A long cloak draped behind him as he ran towards her yelling profanity. He called her every name in the book, but she could only laugh as she stepped out of the throne room and shut the door on him. She knew he wouldn’t pursue her in the hallway. The guards might hear, and while they were technically bound to their King, their hearts remained loyal to their Queen, and so they wouldn’t condone violence against her daughter.
“Perhaps if your cloak wasn’t so big you would have caught me,” she whispered under her breath.
She took in a few deep breaths and looked down at her hands. She remembered the first time she had stood up to Stroat her hands had been shaking. Now they were steady. The screams had stopped too. They normally did about half-way through the night. People reported that normally after about an hour or two of mayhem the eeries would retreat, and sometimes a few of them would be left behind, dead. No one had ever seen anyone killing them, and no one could understand why if someone knew how to kill them they would keep it to themselves, or wait a few hours to make their move. The eeries had attacked six times already, this being the seventh and it always ended the same. They seemed to have gotten worse once her mother left though. At least, that’s what Alice thought.
Walking back to her room she saw Peter peeking from behind his door. He commonly did this when he was afraid.
“Are you grounded again?” he asked her and she smiled.
“You could say that,” she said with a cheerfulness in her voice that Peter didn’t much like. “Do you want me to stay with you tonight?”
Peter was quiet for a moment and looked down at his slippers. She knew that he wanted her to, but she also knew he didn’t enjoy admitting it. His father wanted him to stop relying on Alice so much and to start acting like the kind of man who could run a kingdom. Peter is 11 years old.
“I’ll sneak us some blancs,” Alice said, eyebrows raised as though it were a bribe.
He looked up at her and smiled, and it was all the reassurance she needed. She headed into the kitchen. Her her best tip-toe routine practiced and rehearsed. She used to get caught all the time, but now she had gotten so good at sneaking around that she hadn’t been caught in years. She was actually pretty proud of this, though as if to prove her wrong Finn, a palace guard, caught her the moment she placed her feet onto the cold marble floor. He flipped on the lights, arms crossed. Her cheeks turned red.
Finn wore a black mask over his face at all times. You couldn’t see his eyes or his mouth, nothing, and because of this he was impossible to read. Stroat hated that he did this, but Finn was their best fighter and his tongue and wit were sharper than a blade, so he kind of just did what he wanted, and there wasn’t much anyone else could do. And he wasn’t around much anymore anyway. He used to be around a lot when Alice was younger, but around the time she turned eight years old the trips that he took to other lands started lasting longer, until he only came around a few times a year. She remembered her mother talking about how much she missed him, and how she wished he wouldn’t leave so often. Alice had missed him too for awhile, and then she forgot about him, and now she could hardly remember why she had missed him at all. Or at least this was what she told herself.
“Thinking about sneaking some sweets for you and Peter?” he asked her. His voice was smooth, like velvet and she remembered how much her mother used to love hearing it. And somehow even though he wasn’t around much he knew more about the palace than most of the other guards. He held a bag of Blancs in his hand. She would have been impressed but this was a common pastime for her and Peter, and because of the screams, it was almost inevitable that blancs would be required to get through the night.
Alice didn’t want to smile but she did. After a moment’s recovery, she scoffed. “How’d you guess?” she asked, but it wasn’t a question. It was thick with sarcasm. He was known for having a big ego, and she didn’t enjoy feeding into it like most people.
“You know I’d try being a little nicer seeing as though I’m the one with the bag of sweets,” he said. He threw up the bag in the air with his right hand and caught it with his left without moving his head. He was showing off and she was disgusted. She hated that he felt like he could just pop in and out of her life and pretend no time had passed. She hadn’t seen him since the last night of blood, when he had been angry with her for leaving the palace, and she had told him off saying that he wasn’t even here enough to tell her what to do. He had left without responding.
“Is your life so boring that you feel like you have to taunt little girls for entertainment, or do you simply get pleasure from it?” she said.
Her lips trembled. She tried to hold her composure. Wanting him to feel the sting of her jest, but she hadn’t yet mastered a straight face around him. She secretly envied his mask. No one could tell how he was feeling. No one could take advantage of him for his emotions.
“Wow, did you rehearse that? Because I’ve got to say that your delivery is a little shaky. Would you like to try it again? This time try not curling your lip so much,” he said. She could hear a smile in his voice, and that did sting. She looked at her feet. “Nothing?”
She didn’t move. He shook his head and threw the blancs up in the air towards her and she caught them. “Don’t let them see you tremble Alice.”
He was gone before the weight of the statement could hit her. Her mother used to say something similar. She remembered back when she had jumped from a tree and broken her leg. The terrible pain she felt. She had cries so loud that her mother had come running from the palace. She remembered her mother picking her up by the armpits and bringing her into a brightly lit room in the palace and running water over the break and because of her mother’s healing skills, the pain soon was gone, but Alice hadn’t stopped crying from the trauma. Her mother had wiped her eyes with a warm rag and kissed her tears away. “Don’t let them see you cry my darling,” she had said.