Chapter 4:

Chapter 3. The slow fugitive.

Requiem for Cinderella: a Dragon story.

A cat climbed up the tree right next to the farm house, found a nest and helped itself to some eggs. It looked at the field while licking its mouth, and lowered itself at the sight of a weasel which strolled to the woods on the barren soil. The cat followed the beast until it reached a bush on the roadside, then it jumped down and transformed in mid-air.
The light of the rising sun tinted the white owl orange the span of two seconds.
It landed right on top of the weasel and finished it in one strike. The weasel wasn’t even alive – what lay under the claws was nothing more than a puppet of straws, mud and decaying flesh. The bird collected a small blue perl from within the carcass and swallowed it whole, before it took off and flew back to the farms.
A tiny branch curved under the owl’s weight before letting go of a lighter bird. It flew on the windowsill of the cellar’s window. Behind it, someone laid asleep on a simple bed.
The tiny curious sparrow was the thing the girl saw.
That, and the frame of an orange landscape – frost covered ground glinting with sunlight, blue sky without a cloud, just the superior edge of a rising star. On the foreground, a lonely tree with little leaves, the border of a forest, a glimpse of fumes from someone smoking in the courtyard.
The farmer had the room cleaned up, yet the window kept emitting golden dust. The bird seemed oblivious, it just hung its head on one side, its black eyes fixed on one spot. The cellar was empty except for the bed and two chests made of wood. Animal hides covered both floors and the walls, which were little more than the inner side of the roof. Some heat also came from the chimney – a square brick column feets away from the bed. The girl squinted. The golden dust couldn’t be coming from outside, nor was the sparrow its origin.
She shivered.
“Don’t move.”
Whoever said that must’ve received the blanket in the face, followed by a quick blow. The fencing sword entered the fox hide on one side and met some resistance. The girl ducked down and countered the blow to the face – she already predicted it would dodge the blade. The assailant rose a hand, she stretched out hers, screamed something cryptic. The air deformed and the man flew against the chimney. The girl threw a dagger, her right hand already under the pillow. Once the man dodged again and jumped back up, she leaped on him like a lion on its prey, and her shot pinned him down on the ground, a steel bolt on his cloth.
“This crossbow can shoot twice!
- I’ll give you that, you know some moves.
- Wrong target, though.”
The right target fell on its knees, holding the bolt in its chest.
“Damn it, you got me… If not for the chainmail…
- Why would you waste a material illusion on bluff?
- Because I plain suck at that magic, thus constantly practice it.”
The target sat up on the ground, back to the wall. The window sunrays lit up a patch of the floor on the bed’s left side. The target threw a shortsword there.
“Attentions – non hostile. You knew you couldn’t beat me, then why?
- Only two kinds of creatures emit that strong of a signature. Dragons and shape shifters. Where’s the bird?
She put the crossbow on her belt.
- Out hunting.
- Really? What?
- Take a guess.
- If you were after, we wouldn’t be speaking. So you’re checking for pursuers.
- Your pursuers. You move slow for a fugitive.”
The figure crawled forward to sit under the sun. It’s voice was now feminine. Both feminine and familiar. The girl took a step back, another dagger ready.
Under the hood, from beneath the dusty grey traveler’s clothes, she saw herself.
“I am your twin sister Ada. I work for somebody. Someone who has power, who used to be nothing, became everything. Wrong decision to send bastards separate ways. One ends up cuddled and cherished, the other has to endure and then fend for herself. But who could have known the next duchy would grow wild and lawless? Certainly not Charles.”
She grinned.
“You have a protector. Someone paid my boss to see that you travel safe. Your best bet is Gleb, Dalia’s sworn enemy. Our brother is there. You cross the duchy, you cross the mountains, you leave for another country. There they should stop chasing you.
Ada beckoned the girl to come closer. The latter sat down just across her, on the patch of sunlight. Anna’s fingers were white, almost beaming, both soft and spotless.
On Ada’s thighs, one set of fingers missed two. The other hand looked badly burned, more so not too long ago. Both looked rough, dark and tanned.
- I do not believe you. If you can change voices, cast doubles, stay conscious after my spell – then you might as well be the enemy. Or any crooked, lying third party.
The other girl laughed.
- Clever guess. But there is a secret I’ll tell you: the myth about mages above a certain level able to sense dragons is just a myth. The same about my coworker. They’ll lie all they want in the academy about the might of the top one percent. But no one has actually done it. Which is untrue, on the other side, for siblings with the blood of a powerful magician. Especially twins.
- No way. How come I don’t sense an identical signature? I know mine.
- Detection magic works in strange ways. You don’t see yourself like the other see you. To do so you’d need some advanced mind reading.
- Or a powerful proxy. I know my books. The farmer is safe?
- Safe and sound. He didn’t sense us coming here.
- How long were you watching me sleep?
- Half an hour. I fought the temptation to kill you.
- For what?
- Sport. The alarms you set were too easy to bust. You can’t sleep alone when you’re on the run. You clueless complete amateur.
- That’s why we aren’t sisters. You’re just some sick joke. I have no reasons to exile myself. I’ll go where I must, in Gleb maybe, but not permanently.
Ada stood up.
- Then I’ve nothing more left to tell you. My boss will be very disappointed. And so will be John.
- John?!
Anna jumped and in one motion grabbed the unwanted guest on her collar, then showed her body onto the bed.
- What have you done?
- Easy, countess… To each thing it’s time. He met a patrol yesterday. Turns out some guy betrayed you. The same one retreated. For now.
- Where’s John?
- Freezing his ass in a ruined mill off-road. Your other friend can’t do a thing if they catch the flu. I dropped by and told them the farm is not safe.
- Liar.
- It’s part of the contract to make sure they live. Our payer’s a dumbass. Your John’s a dead load, you should leave him.
- What happened to not sleeping alone?
- He might do the trick, but he’s not a soldier. He dropped his chariot and sold most of the load when a wheel popped out. I doubt he can move just as fast as you would if you followed me.
- To escape? No, take me to John.
- What is he to you?
- He’s one who believed me.
- Old man was a nutjob, did not have his head. The archmage suggested you should seek the plan for a political union from the anarchists who meet at Walpurgis night. What nonsense is this? Poor John’s trying to figure out some “hidden meaning”… I’m losing time here. Get dressed, then let’s go.
Anna stepped aside to grab clothes from inside a chest.
A long cape was among them.
- I lied to your John about us knowing each other. Still find this funny. I learned everything six days ago! Apparently the Archmage thinks one more is worthy of reading his rubbish. That’s where the contract came from, along with the information. My boss told me the secret, since it’s stupid that I’d risk my life for a doppelganger I’ll freak out seeing.
The girl laughed dryly.
- I’m ready.
Anna put on a triangular hat.
- Take me to John, then just leave us.
Ada pulled down her hood.
- Whatever the princess says…”
She jumped down from the window and landed rolling with little noise.
Anna took the door. In the kitchen, she instructed the farmer to not leave until noon and not stay near the windows. Then she paid him in silver and bid farewell.
The bearded man sat in a corner and looked at a mice that ran in.
“Yes, they just left. Go. Do your job.”
It squeaked twice and ran away.