Gemma Perfect - Young Adult Fantasy Author 

1

“It’s time,” Meg touches Elsie on her shoulder, gently rousing her from sleep.

Elsie opens her eyes, instantly awake. She sits up, pushing the hair off her face, and shaking out her sleep rumpled wings. “I’ve been counting down to this day for years.”

“Me too.”

Elsie reaches out for her maid and her only friend, eyes full of unshed tears. “You don’t have to come with me. You can stay if you want to. Escape.”

Meg shakes her head, frowning. “I won’t leave you.”

“This is your chance. It might be your only chance.”

Meg shakes head, no, taking hold of Elsie’s face. “I won’t leave you. Not before and not now.”

Elsie closes her eyes, letting the tears fall.

“I’ll knock for breakfast.”

Elsie walks over to the window and looks out at the abandoned garden, while Meg knocks on the bedroom door. Neither reacts to the scrape of the deadbolts being drawn back. A guard shoves two trays into the room with his foot, and then they hear the locks being pulled again.

Meg places Elsie’s tray down on the little table first, and then her own.

“I won’t miss this.” Elsie laughs, as she sips the warm water and takes a bite of bread. “Oh, Meg, will it be wonderful? Will it be completely different?”

Meg nods and smiles, and Elsie feels better, finishing off the meagre breakfast quickly. Meg has the same amount but finishes first. Elsie watches her wipe her hands and then turn to her, smile overly bright.

“Let’s get you ready.”

Elsie stands in front of the mirror and allows Meg to dress her, taking off her shabby nightclothes and replacing them with her newly bought travelling clothes. Meg brushes and ties up her hair. Elsie is sixteen years old and has never dressed herself, not once.

“It’s time.”

Elsie nods and closes her eyes as the door is unlocked once again. Meg steps out of the room first and the guard follows them through the castle corridors and out to the waiting carriage.

There’s nobody there to see her off, nobody to send her away with love and luck and the wish of a safe journey. The driver nods to her, a sympathetic smile on his face.

Meg helps Elsie into the carriage. They will never return to the castle where she was born, where she said her first words, took her first steps and first realised how cruel the world could be.

Meg, who knows her best, drapes a blanket over both of their knees, and tucks her arm though Elsie’s, keeping up a stream of light-hearted chatter so Elsie doesn’t have to face her sadness. “How about a story? One of your favourites?”

Elsie nods. She loves listening to Meg’s tales of brave girls and fearless warrior women. She won’t look back at the castle.

She will look forward. To her new life, to her new home and to her new husband. To freedom.

“Meg! Tell the driver to stop, I need-” Overcome with emotion, Elsie is shaking, and crying, and Meg does as she’s bid. The driver slows to a stop and Elsie all but falls out of the carriage, touching the grass, the gravel road, the flowers. She raises her face to the sky; the light making her wince, tears stinging her eyes. Then she flutters her wings and flies, straight up and a little wobbly. It’s been a long time. She lets out a whoop as she somersaults in the air, before landing beside Meg who takes hold of her by her shoulders. “Be careful. Please, Elsie.”

“I remember how to do it.”

“That’s not the point.”

Elsie drops to the floor, her legs suddenly giving way.

“Oh, Meg, am I really free?”

Meg kneels beside her and bundles her into a hug, a tight hug. “You are. You are free.”

“Nobody can make me go back?”

“Nobody can make you go back.”

Elsie is sobbing now but smiling too. Through her tears she asks, “I can do what I want?”

Meg nods. “Within reason, princess.”

“Then I want to eat. I am so hungry. Is there food in this village other than bread? Can we stop on the way to the docks?”

“Yes, there is and yes we can stop. We can do whatever you want.”

Elsie wipes her eyes and her nose on her sleeves, laughing when Meg tuts, and then stands up shakily. “I cannot believe I am free. The sky is so blue, the grass is so green.”

“You are giddy, get back in the carriage.”

“Can’t I fly to the docks. I long to fly.”

Meg turns sharply, a flash of fear in her eyes. “No!”

“Why not Meg, what are you scared of? I won’t fly off and leave you.”

“That’s not what I’m afraid of. We should go straight to the dock. We can eat on the ship.”

“Please, Meg. We’ll be quick, I just… I just want to eat. Do what I want. Be free.”

Meg sighs but nods her acquiescence.

Elsie climbs into the carriage and sits back under the blanket. “So, we can stop at the next tavern?”

“We can. But we must be quick and careful. You might be hungry, but taverns aren’t nice places to go.”

“Even in broad day light?”

“They are every bit as rough as they are at night. Please, Elsie. I am charged with looking after you. If we don’t make it to the ship-”

“It’ll because we’re dead in a tavern, and nobody can be angry with you if you’re dead.”

Meg laughs and rolls her eyes. “I cannot be angry with you. You take advantage of that.”

“I do not. I promise I don’t. I’m just… free. And so, so-”

“Hungry!” Meg finishes the sentence for her and Elsie laughs.

“Do you know how I have longed for this, Meg? How I have longed to be away from the castle?”

Meg does know, she has heard her princess and her friend cry more nights than she can count. She knows all that she endures because she is right by her side, enduring it too.

“A very quick stop is all I will agree to. The driver accompanies us, and at the slightest sign of trouble we leave.”

“What trouble would there be?”

Meg shakes her head but doesn’t answer.

“Meg?”

“No trouble. Let’s finish our story.”

Meg tells the story, one Elsie has heard more than a hundred times, and she lets her words wash over her. She is free. Like a bird or a butterfly, or a fairy who is allowed to fly once more. She is flushed with excitement.

Elsie squeals as the carriage slows down.

“Please, princess.” Meg gives her the warning, but Elsie ignores her.

“Do I really need my cloak?” she asks holding it up.

Meg pales slightly but smiles quickly. “Absolutely. It might be cold.”

Elsie climbs out of the carriage before it has even stopped.

Before she can dart away, Meg tucks her wings in, smoothing them down, and covering them with the cloak. Then she shakes her head as she takes in the tavern – well more of a shack, really. “You couldn’t have waited until we got to a nicer tavern?” she asks the driver but doesn’t wait for his answer. “Princess.” Her voice holds a warning, that Elsie pays no heed to, as she turns to drink in the sight of her first tavern, the first signs of life, other people, freedom and choice she has encountered since she was ten years old.

She cannot help but shudder, a tremble that runs through her whole body, and she turns to Meg, excitement shining in her eyes. It looks a little grubby: she touches her cloak, a dark grey velvet that won’t show the dirt, at least, and moves closer to the tavern. She can hear raucous laughter, shouting and music, despite the early hour and cannot help the rush of joy that fills her.

She is determined to live a different life now that she’s free. She squares her shoulders and walks towards the noise. Meg is right beside her.

There’s a sign outside, hanging askew, FINE WINES AND ALES. Nobody believes that lie; there is nothing fine about the place: it’s a dump. The place doesn’t even have a name; that’s the only sign and it’s not even straight.

As Elsie gets closer the door slams open and a group of loud, laughing men, spill out into the cold air. She drinks in the sight of them. Fairies. Drunk fairies, but people still. Talking, laughing, moving. They can barely stand up straight, let alone walk and, suddenly, her heart is beating loud enough for her to hear it. They turn away from her, staggering the other way, and relief almost makes her knees buckle. She turns to Meg, sees the expression of amusement on her face and sighs.

“I’m going in.”

“Don’t let me stop you,” Meg says.

“As if you could.”

Elsie pushes open the door to the tavern, the heat and stink of ale making her take a step back. It’s strong enough to knock the uninitiated out, and her eyes are watering from the reek. She breathes through her mouth so she cannot smell it and steps inside.

The noise and the smell hit Elsie afresh as well as the gloominess. She can barely see through the fog of smoke and the dim lanterns with grubby glass.

There are too many people and not enough room; she gets jostled and takes a step to the side, knocking into someone else. “Sorry.” She turns as she apologises and takes a step away from the man – he’s the tallest, ugliest brute she’s ever seen, and he grins at her, showing his lack of teeth – and promptly bumps into someone else.

She cannot help but sigh at how ridiculous it is, as she heads for the only empty table she can see. The men and women all fall silent as they watch her.

Aware of the silence she keeps her head down, holding her arms close to her sides so she doesn’t hit anybody else, making sure her wings don’t flutter madly, which they tend to do when she’s scared, and refusing to meet anybody’s eyes.

The noise starts up again and Elsie breathes a sigh of relief. If the sights she has seen in here so far are anything to go by, she can’t be that interesting to any of them.

She takes in the table, a slab of worn and stained wood on legs, wonky and dirty and the stool, maybe in a worse state. She tucks her cloak under her, so her dress stays clean.

Meg sits, a scowl on her face, and the driver stands beside them.

“Now what?” Elsie asks and Meg laughs.

“Funny how you think that I would know?”

Elsie shrugs, looking so painfully out of her depth that Meg feels sorry for her. “Luckily for you, a day spent with my father usually meant placing a bet or two, followed by a little lunch in the tavern.” She bangs the table and the bar man looks over at her. “Three pints of your best ale, and some water for the horses outside.”

Elsie looks at her, awe clear on her face. “Meg, you are a wonder.”

“I’m not a wonder. One drink – I refuse to let you eat here. I don’t care how hungry you are.”

Elsie is happy to agree and has to hide her disgust when the dirty tin cups are placed on the table, ale sloshing over the sides. “The driver will pay you,” she says, and the bar man nods, a man of few words.

“Elsie, I know you want your freedom, but I promise you this isn’t it. Drink quickly.”

Elsie cannot argue, so instead takes a single sip from her drink. She feels she ought to after the fuss she made about coming here, but she is more than ready to leave.

A cough has them both looking up, fear filling Elsie’s eyes. The man standing there stands alone. He has a jug of ale in one hand and a plate of chicken bones in the other.

“Smelly Jim,” he says by way of an introduction and Elsie tries to smile, she really does, but smelly doesn’t cover it. The stench emanating from him is too foul to be described as a mere smell. It is dizzying how bad he smells, the air around him is hazy, and she’s sure there are flies buzzing around his head.

He’s a skinny man, painfully skinny – even though she can see evidence that he eats by way of the chicken bones, she would question the truth of it. He looks cadaverous, skeletal and between the look of him and the stench of him she wants to turn around and run away, but her princessly manners are rooting her feet to the floor and her backside to the stool.

Despite where she is and who she is looking at, she cannot be rude.

Smelly Jim takes a tiny, birdlike sip of his drink, and nods at her. His expression doesn’t change; he looks serious and strangely still. She wonders if he did smile would his skin split, it looks so tight, he hasn’t an ounce of fat on him.

“A princess?”

Elsie nods, as Meg reaches over to place a warning hand on her arm.

“A princess who is just leaving,” Meg says, her voice firm and her eyes hard. There are too many men, and women, who would want to take revenge against any member of the royal family they met; even if the princess in question was oblivious to the horrors that go on in the name of the crown. Which Meg knows she is.

“Don’t leave. Not yet. I should tell you something. I bet you haven’t been in many taverns in your life. Am I right?” He does grin then, and he looks all the worse for it.

Elsie nods and risks a look around. Most of the people are ignoring her. It’s ridiculously busy, people sitting, people standing, people perched on laps, jostling for space, the noise of them all talking, laughing, shouting, arguing, is headache inducing and there’s an undercurrent of menace that is making Elsie tense. There is a strange atmosphere here; despite the laughter and the revelry, there is a barely masked threat of violence.

She catches a few people looking her way, men and women and they are bold enough to hold her gaze, and she understands. She clearly doesn’t fit in.

And she wants to leave.

“It was delightful to make your acquaintance… Jim.”

“Smelly Jim.”

“Quite.”

“One thing. I can see how sad you are, butterfly. But let me tell you that great things are waiting for you. The sins of others shall not be visited upon you.”

Elsie turns to Meg and whispers, “The sins of others?”

Meg shrugs as though she has no idea what Smelly Jim is talking about, but she knows they need to leave.

He considers her over the rim of his cup of ale and she cannot help the rush of panic that comes over her. But for her ridiculous notion of needing to enjoy her freedom and eat because she’s always so hungry from the tiny amount of food she’s been fed for years, she would be tucked up safely in the carriage, listening to Meg’s tales, but instead she is perching, in this dark, smelly, uncomfortable tavern, with the reek of ale and Smelly Jim assaulting her nose and the sound of swearing, laughing and general hullabaloo assaulting her ears. She is close to tears and feeling foolish for taking such a risk.

“Great things and grand adventures.” He pauses, eyes glassy. “And a life like you would never have dreamed, fairy Queen.”

Meg takes Elsie’s hand and pushes back her stool, the loud scrape against the tiles floor, breaking the spell. Elsie stands with a stumble.

“Thank you, Jim, we’ll be off now, and good day to you.”

Meg doesn’t wait for any further insights from him, just tucks Elsie as close as she can to her, and hisses to the driver to watch them safely outside. He glugs down his ale, not wanting to waste it, and quickly downs the girl’s drinks as well. A loud bang and scream have him reaching for his sword.

Elsie freezes when she hears the scream and the bang, even though Meg is pulling on her arm, and her eyes are wide with fear. Frantically looking around she sees a young girl being carried over a man’s shoulder. She is screaming but not putting up much of a fight. “Shouldn’t we help her? Does she need assistance?” Meg asks the bar man who is watching them with an amused expression on his face. “That’s her husband,” he says. “She refuses to put dinner on the table for him. Every night’s the same.”

“Really?” Elsie watches the pair with interest. When he finally puts her down, they kiss to a roar of applause before the chef plonks two pies in front of them. Looking at the grubby grease covering his tunic, Elsie is glad that Meg wouldn’t allow them to eat here.

“Time to go.”

Elsie won’t argue with Meg. She is more than ready to leave and opens her mouth to say so. It’s not a scream that cuts her off this time but a yell, an angry yell from a deep-voiced man. Immediately it’s followed by more shouting and swearing and then there’s chaos as all the punters rush to gather around the brawling men.

Elsie shrinks back against a wall, horrified by the noise, swearing and shouts for violence. She has let go of Meg’s hand and cannot see her in the rush of bodies and violence. She can hear the thwacks as the punches land, and the crowd roars louder with each hit.

She cannot see the fighting men, only the press of bodies surrounding her and them, but she is trapped. She cannot hope to force her way through the throng without getting hurt. Frantically looking from side to side for means of escape, but finding none, the noise of the crowd and the bloodthirsty cheering is making her feel dizzy. Sick and dizzy. Her hands are sweating, and her heart is beating loud enough for her to hear it. Tears spring to her eyes and she uses the wall behind her to stop herself from fainting flat on to the floor.

As often happens when one fight starts, the swarm of people watching them start fighting amongst themselves. The mood is high and with space lacking, people are jostling each other, shoving, cursing and scrapping.

Two men wrestle to the floor in front of Elsie and she screams, trying to make herself smaller, edging sideways along the wall, desperately trying to move out of their way, desperately looking for Meg or their driver.

She is backed into a corner with no means of escape, frightened tears coursing down her cheeks.

She is stuck.