Adventurer Lance Desmond needs to produce a fortune before his arch-rival collects the bounty on his head. He risks an ancient curse to retrieve treasure hidden within icebound Castle Cavanaugh, only to become trapped inside. Not with the gold he so desperately needs, but with medieval Princess Marigold who’s been cooling her heels since… well, medieval times.
The lonely princess refuses to acknowledge the blossoming attraction between them. Not just because she deserves a better future than a penniless rogue. But because at midnight, he’ll vanish like all her other would-be heroes. And the evergreen in the parlor will have one more figurine hanging from its boughs…
Holiday-themed alternate reality paranormal romantic comedy
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After another long spell of swashbuckling and bounty hunting, Lance Desmond could barely wait to hang up his sword. The twenty-four-hour Pawn & Potion tucked between a pair of towering steel-and-glass skyscrapers might look like a dingy hovel of ill repute—and it was—but it was also home. The first floor catered to all walks of life, but the second floor belonged to Lance. It was three o’clock in the morning. Christmas Eve. And if the gods were with him, maybe he could sleep straight through to the new year. He jerked to a stop a few feet before the front door.
The gods, it seemed, were not with him.
There, next to the magically fluorescent OPEN sign, was a glossy, three-foot-high broadsheet bearing Lance’s own likeness. The initial rush of pleasure upon finding himself immortalized in full color was greatly tempered by the boldface type just above his face:
Dead or Alive
The fine print across the bottom was little better: “Ten thousand silver drachma to the first person to bring Lance Desmond’s head to Ivan Radko. Attached body optional. Void if paid in full: one hundred thousand drachma.”
“Radko.” Lance ripped the poster from the dirty wall. “That asshole ruins everything.”
He shouldered his way into the Pawn & Potion. This late at night, barely a dozen customers roamed the well-stocked aisles.
Sancho—shop owner and Lance’s best friend since childhood—glanced up from straightening a pile of magic carpets. Delight spread across his face. “You’re back! Please tell me you have your rent money. Also, I’ve been researching churches with the best choirs, and I think this year we should do midnight mass over at—”
“No rent.” Lance held the crinkled poster up. “But I did get an early Christmas present.”
Sancho’s face fell. “Dead or alive. Great. What are you going to do? There’s no way you can come up with the hundred thousand to pay off Ivan before someone decides to collect the bounty on your head.”
Lance hesitated. “Thing is, I did have a hundred thousand. That’s what Radko’s so honked off about. It all started when the new rajah hired him to find a handful of diamonds that had fallen from a plane over Mount Everest.”
Sancho closed his eyes as if in pain. “And you found them first.”
“Of course.” Lance lifted a shoulder. “It’s not my fault Radko didn’t realize the diamonds were gone and kept on looking.”
Sancho sighed. His eyes flew open. “Wait. Then where’s the money?”
Lance lowered his eyes guiltily. “I bought a pirate ship.”
Sancho’s face went bright red. “You spent a hundred thousand drachma on a pirate ship?”
“Two hundred thousand,” Lance corrected. “A proper Spanish galleon costs close to three. It’s on layaway.”
“Sell it back! You can use that money to get the bounty off your head and still have enough left over for a down payment on a different ship.”
“Can’t. No returns. And no ship until the balance is paid off.” Lance knelt to straighten the fallen carpets. “Besides, I earned that money fair and square.”
Sancho’s humorless laugh filled the room. “Since when has Ivan cared about being fair? Let’s cut to the moral. There’s a price on your head that you can’t afford to buy off, and you’re hanging around the one place even the worst bounty hunter will think to check.” He took a deep breath. “Run.”
Lance drummed his fingers on the hilt of his sword. Run? How could he? Lance had never run from anything in his life. On the other hand, he couldn’t disagree with the central notion that something had to be done, and fast. There wasn’t enough time to get another commission. Or raise a defensive army. He needed magical intervention. He needed a Christmas miracle. He needed—
“Castle Cavanaugh,” he said slowly, the words as tentative as the idea.
“Castle—what?” Sancho spluttered in disbelief. “The mythical Golden Bloom of Eternal Youth? You can’t go after that! Are you insane?”
“Undoubtedly, but what’s that got to do with anything? That flower is legendary. My cut would be millions. Billions, maybe. Enough to buy us both pirate ships, pay off your mortgage, and still have plenty left over for ale. It’s the perfect plan.”
“It’s suicide! No one who’s ever attempted to infiltrate Castle Cavanaugh has made it back alive, much less with the Golden Bloom of Eternal Youth.”
“If they’d already made it back with the Bloom, there’d be nothing for me to go find,” Lance pointed out. “That’s what makes it such a good plan.”
“It’s a terrible plan. A death plan!”
“Since when did you get so excitable?” Lance toyed with the poster. “It’s just a flower. Easy peasy. I’ll be back by dinner.”
Sancho snatched the poster from Lance’s hands. “A fabled golden bloom, hidden deep within a castle so cursed, no living creature has returned from its property line in six hundred years. That’s no big deal?”
“‘Problems are just challenges in work clothes,’” Lance quoted firmly.
“You’re the one who’s challenged,” Sancho scoffed. “How are you going to breach an unbreachable castle? You going to rely upon your magicless sword? Or maybe your precious smartphone? Is there a ‘breach unbreachable castle’ app I don’t know about?”
“There’s some Ritalin you apparently don’t know about. Take some calming breaths and try to settle down. Everything’s under control.” Lance gestured around the small room. “Fortuitously, we happen to be standing in a shop called the Pawn and Potion.”
“I sell magic potions, not psychiatric medication.”
“Exactly.” Lance flashed his most charming smile. “I don’t suppose you can extend a wee bit more credit?”
Steam all but rolled out of Sancho’s ears, but in the end he nodded defeatedly. “Just tell me what you need.”
“Something to breach an unbreachable castle, of course. Dynamite, perhaps?”
Sancho tapped the scroll against his chin. “Fresh out of dynamite. How about . . . a spellbook?”
Lance sighed. Sancho had spent the past decade trying to get his customers to purchase spellbooks. But once the most popular spells had been digitized and put online, witches and warlocks started carrying e-readers instead of heavy, moldered tomes. Sancho hadn’t moved a single ink-and-paper book in over a year, despite having relegated the entire lot to a bargain bin labeled FREE, right by the front register.
Nonetheless, Lance nodded his acceptance. His self-styled ninja suit, modeled after the iconic Batsuit in spirit, not in looks—Lance found capes to be more obstructive than helpful—contained enough hidden compartments to easily tote a dozen spellbooks, if that was what he wanted. (It wasn’t.) He’d make room for a thin volume on his back where he kept a quiver of arrows, but he wanted the bulk of any extra weight to be due to more practical items. Like maybe nunchucks. Or grenade launchers.
“I need firepower,” he said decisively. “Got any weapons of mass destruction on sale?”
Sancho looked unconvinced. “Isn’t the castle cursed with impenetrable cold, in which nothing can survive? What would you need to use firepower on? Abominable snowmen?”
“Don’t be stingy. What’ve you got?”
Sancho hesitated, then turned his back on the late-night shoppers. He motioned for Lance to follow. “Coast is clear. Come back to my office. I’ll show you what just came in.”
A thrill raced through Lance’s blood. Partly because Sancho was frequently the first to know about the most cutting-edge advances in magical technology, but if he was honest—and Lance was always honest—mostly it was because Sancho was right. A price on Lance’s head meant that going home was the worst destination he could’ve chosen. He’d been safer at the pub, although he wouldn’t have been for long. Bounty hunters would be crawling all over the Pawn & Potion at any moment.
He would love to stay and fight, but there wasn’t time to waste on swordplay. He had to save his neck. And his boat.
Sancho shoved his office door closed and beckoned Lance over to the wall safe he kept unimaginatively hidden behind a motel-grade watercolor.
The paintings on Lance’s walls were of much higher quality. And his art didn’t hide wall safes full of valuables. They were his valuables.
With a flourish, Sancho flung open the safe door and pulled out three ten-inch cylinders with a single tiny button on one side. “Check these babies out!”
Lance picked one of the cylinders up doubtfully. Gray plastic wand. Ribbed grip, black accents, red button. “It’s a . . . knockoff lightsaber?”
With a roll of his eyes, Sancho reached out to take it back. “No, man, it’s—”
Lance depressed the button.
With a loud pop and a bright flash, a perfectly spherical three-foot hole appeared in the wall before them.
Acrid smoke laced the air as tiny orange embers floated from the burned circumference toward the floor. With a hiss, ice-cold water sprayed in jets from the ceiling as the automatic fire alarm clanged into action. On the other side of the gaping hole, customers streamed toward the exit, ducking to avoid the water spraying overhead.
“No way,” Lance breathed, cradling the cheap plastic toy with renewed respect. “I’ll take them!”
Sancho looked torn between tossing Lance through the hole he’d just made and clapping his hands with delight over the awesomeness of the destruction. Delight won out. It was clear from the chortles of wild laughter that Sancho hadn’t yet tested the merchandise for himself, and found the results to be undeniably awesome. But then he snatched the lightsaber from Lance’s hands, and tossed it in the garbage.
Lance smacked his hand. “Why are you always throwing the best stuff away?”
Sancho pushed his wet fauxhawk out of his eyes, then disabled the fire alarm from a control panel. “Fire swords are single-use. So now it’s useless.”
“Not useless. Give it to the broom-maker’s kids. I promise they’ll love it.” Lance picked up the other two fire swords and hooked them on to his utility belt, mindful not to press the buttons. “Order about a thousand of these. Maybe do a Facebook ad. You’ll be rich.”
“I wish.” Sancho rifled through a bookcase, then tossed Lance a medium-sized pouch. “Take this, too.”
Lance loosened the drawstring and peeked inside. “A blanket? What are you, my mother?”
“Heat resistant. Clinically proven to provide full protection against fire-breathing dragons.”
“Doubt there’ll be much fire. I’m more likely to run into a pack of yetis. The castle is cursed with impenetrable layers of ice, remember?”
Sancho shrugged. “Then use it to keep warm. Pseudo-microfiber. Stain-resistant and useful for quickly wicking away water.”
“Quickly wicking away—is this really dragon-proof?” Lance asked suspiciously. “Or is this another of your late-night infomercial purchases?”
“Oh, here’s a spellbook,” Sancho said without answering the question. He tossed Lance a leather-bound volume before taking a slow glance around the shop. “Can you think of anything else?”
“Snacks?” Lance suggested hopefully. He always carried a decent supply of high protein power bars, but sometimes a man wanted to eat something with little-to-no nutritional value.
After a few seconds of rummaging, Sancho managed to come up with a Snickers bar and a fistful of Slim Jim beef jerky. Fair enough.
“Thanks.” Lance glanced around the now-soggy magic shop. A parking lot. Sancho would be lost if his shop got demolished. Lance absolutely had to find the treasure, for both their sakes. “I guess that’s it. Thanks for . . . thanks for the store credit, man.”
Sancho blinked hard, as if he’d heard the words Lance had truly meant, rather than the ones he’d actually spoken.
“One last thing,” the big man said gruffly, reaching up behind his thick neck to untie his cherished necklace. He held it out to Lance. “Never take this off.”
“But . . . the shop!”
“You’re saving the shop and buying both of us pirate ships, remember?” Sancho crossed his arms. “Just don’t bind yourself to something stupid, like a glass of ale.”
Lance stared at the string of human bone fragments coiled in his palm. “Is there a magic word or anything? A ritual to make it stick?”
Sancho shook his head. “The necklace simply binds its owner to whatever they love most. That thing can’t be taken from you as long as you wear the necklace.”
Lance tied the ends behind his neck. Although his reputation for being mercenary and invincible was well-earned, he wasn’t foolish enough to believe Fate wouldn’t someday catch up with him. Every ward helped, but no quantity of talismans was a guarantee of success.
His resolve hardened. Never getting his coveted pirate ship out of layaway was one thing, but leaving Sancho in dire straits was wholly unacceptable.
“If I don’t make it back . . .”
Sancho recoiled, horrified. “You have to make it back. You’ve never failed at anything!”
“I don’t plan on failing this time, either.” Lance purposefully displayed his trademark arrogance in order to keep his best friend’s fears at bay. “But in the meantime, I owe you some rent. You know the three paintings on the wall above my couch?”
“The ones that look like a drunken sailor rolled around in a field of Play-Doh?”
“Watch it. I painted those.” Lance took a deep breath. “Underneath each one is a different work of art. It’s actually . . . The Lost Triptych of Atlantis.”
“The lost—” Sancho’s mouth fell open. “Why even attempt Castle Cavanaugh if you have The Lost Triptych of Atlantis nailed above your couch? It’s got to be worth half a million, at least!”
“Much, much more,” Lance admitted. “If I could prove what it was. Which I can’t. I love it anyway. My dream has always been to hang it in the galley of my pirate ship. I could sail the world for adventure, knowing the greatest treasure of all was already aboard my ship—and no one but me would even know. If you have to sell it, you won’t get anywhere near what it’s worth . . . but it should at least cover my rent.”
“Dude.” Sancho stared at him in disbelief. “I can’t sell your priceless triptych.”
“You run a pawn shop. You’re exactly the person who could fence a priceless painting.” At least, Lance hoped so. He had nothing else to offer. If this Castle Cavanaugh thing went south, Lance was out of other options.
Sancho shook his head. “Even if I could, you’d never get it back. Some collector with billions in the bank would snatch it up and that’s the last you’d ever see of it.”
Lance lifted a shoulder. “If I don’t make it back alive, my art collection will be the least of my concerns.”
They stared at each other in silence. At best, he had a one percent chance of pulling this off. Lance’s throat was unaccountably tight, and for a moment he wasn’t quite sure what he’d say if he could speak. He loved Sancho like a brother—they’d been looking out for each other practically from the cradle—and the thought of dying was almost too much to contemplate.
He was on the brink of shocking Sancho senseless with a quick bear hug, when a pair of bounty hunters used silver bullets to announce their presence. Four more bounty hunters fell in behind them.
Lance had his sword in hand and through the chest of the closest attacker before the hunter had a chance to pull the trigger a second time. Two razor-edged claymores appeared in Sancho’s mitts from out of nowhere, and for several adrenaline-filled minutes, the only sounds were the clang of swords, the sharp report of gunfire, and a series of wet thuds as the bodies of would-be assassins hit the ground and stayed there.
At last, Sancho tossed his claymores atop his desk with a grin. “Just like old times.”
Lance grinned back. “In the old days, you were faster,” he said as he sheathed his sword. “My grandma has better moves than you.”
“Your grandma once raised an army of mummies from the dead in order to overthrow a terrorist military regime.”
“Yeah, she’s feisty.” Lance pushed open the back door to the alley. No hit men in sight. He glanced back over his shoulder, hyperaware this might be the last time he stood at this threshold. No. He refused to consider failure. “See you tomorrow for Christmas dinner?”
Sancho stepped closer. “I’ll bake the turkey. And your shitty paintings will be waiting for you upstairs.”
With a nod, Lance touched his fist to Sancho’s and disappeared into the shadows.
The number of bounty hunters requiring a quick dispatch dwindled as Lance strayed farther outside the city proper. Eventually, concrete became long-dead forest. By the time he reached the towering cliffs atop which stood the centuries-frozen Castle Cavanaugh, the only signs of life were his own ragged breathing and the occasional shadow of vultures circling high overhead.
Hours later, he was mentally and physically exhausted, but almost to the top. Thank God. He could barely coax his limbs to keep moving. Visibility had disappeared beneath a layer of freezing clouds, and the only thing keeping him moving was the knowledge that a fall from this height would leave his corpse unrecognizable.
When at last he reached the summit—made all the more unwelcoming by the foot-high snowbank atop an equally thick layer of ice—Castle Cavanaugh rose from the next crest, at the highest point of the land. From this vantage point, the shimmering castle looked exactly like what it was: a thousand-year-old fortress frozen in ice and littered with the ash of windswept snow. No lights shone in the windows. Nothing moved, save the slippery shadows of the ice-coated turrets as the sun once again fled behind cover of clouds.
He pushed onward. Boldly go where many explorers had met their deaths before? No problem. Survive and return to safety, treasure in hand? Well, it wouldn’t be called “adventure” if it were easy. Lance snapped his carabiners back on to his utility belt and began the slow, treacherous hike along the skinny path snaking up to the frozen castle.
The whiteness of the snow and the sameness of the vista took on a sinister edge when he realized the macabre difference between this icy deathtrap and his climb to the peak of Mount Everest: no corpses. One nightmarish aspect of his trek through the Himalayas had been the frozen bodies of fallen explorers along the principle pathway.
Although nearly two hundred corpses from previous failed expeditions had never been recovered, that didn’t mean the bodies were lost. They lay right where they fell. Frozen corpses became human statues. Stark reminders of omnipresent mortality, and that for all of us, one adventure was destined to be the last.
Castle Cavanaugh was different. No corpses of past explorers dotted the monotonous white. Rather than calm Lance’s nerves, this lack only heightened them. No corpses meant something even more serious was wrong. He was hardly the first to have attempted the treacherous climb and, as Sancho had so helpfully pointed out, none of the others had returned to tell the tale.
So where were they?
Lance’s stiff fingers brushed against the flame swords dangling at his hips. He had been joking when he’d debated the chances of stumbling across a dragon or a rabid yeti. At least, he’d meant it as a joke. But something had to have happened here. Something terrible. The other explorers had all been clever, experienced adventurers with strong bodies and limitless determination. Centuries of them, braving the fabled curse for a chance at untold riches. Yet none of them had survived.
Lance had assumed the relentless, impossible cold had been their final battle. But there was no indication of struggle. No sign of explorers past. No sign of life, be it plant or animal. There was just . . . nothing. Nothing but snow and ice.
By the time he reached the snow-crusted wall surrounding the castle, his sense of unease had only sharpened. He was striding ever closer to whatever had felled the other men. His steps slowed. Had the previous treasure hunters survived the grueling climb and the banks of snow, only to succumb to whatever evils lurked on the other side of the castle wall?
He squared his shoulders. There was only one way to find out.
He looped his kernmantle rope through one of his grappling hooks and let fly. The hook held fast to an embrasure in the battlement, allowing him to scramble up the ice-coated slope to the wall-walk. Saw-toothed square merlons jutted up along the perimeter like great stone teeth rising from flat, ice-dead gums.
They did little to brighten the sense of impending doom.
Grunting with exertion, he hauled himself up over the thick walls with their blocky crenellations. The castle rose from the outer bailey like a kraken from the sea, scraping the barren sky with the pointed spires of each bastion and parapet.
He scanned the horizon for potential dangers. If dragons guarded the gate, they were invisible to the naked eye. Not even footprints marred the marble perfection of the blanketing snow. Pausing against an arrow slit in the stones long enough to secure his grappling hook anew, he began his descent from the curtain wall to the waves of snow lining the keep’s yard.
When he was only a few feet above the surface, he leapt to the ground without retrieving his hook. He needed to leave himself a head start on a quick getaway.
He slipped on snowshoes and trudged toward the huge wooden doors indicating what had to be the great hall. From up close, he could see through the transparent ice to the bone-white masonry beneath. The architecture was perfectly preserved, like a fossil trapped in amber. Even the whitewash appeared freshly applied. It was this, Lance realized suddenly, that had reflected through the ice to give the castle’s silhouette such an improbable, unearthly glow.
When he reached the giant iron-plated door, he considered knocking, but quickly dismissed the idea. He doubted his numb fingers could produce a noise strong enough to echo through several inches of solid wood, and besides . . . if whatever evil had swallowed centuries of seasoned adventurers without so much as a trace still lurked on the other side of the keep’s door, Lance had no intention of giving it a heads-up to his arrival.
The door had to be locked and blockaded from the inside, but he gave the ice-covered iron handle a cautious tug just in case. The oversize door swung open as smoothly and as soundlessly as if the hinges had been greased that very morning.
Lance’s heart thudded in surprise—and alarm. Breaching an unbreachable castle should definitely not be this easy. Yet here he was, staring into the belly of the keep. Solid darkness yawned before him, as if even the blinding glitter of sun upon snow could not penetrate the blackness housed within.
He glanced over his shoulder one last time. His footprints were still there, marking the way home. His grappling hook glinted between the merlons. The length of kernmantle rope fluttered in the arctic wind. Lance turned away. His escape route was as solid as he could make it.
He unsnapped his night-vision goggles from his utility belt and pulled them down over his face. The darkness within the castle snapped from pure black to a faded green. The inner walls stretched high and bare, layer after endless layer of interlocking stones without the slightest adornment. No portraits, no tapestries. Just the occasional empty hook where a torch had once hung.
On the other side of the great hall, several corridors branched off to destinations unknown, waiting to be explored. Lance tightened his belt. Now or never. He rolled back his shoulders, stretched his neck, and stepped across the threshold.
The door immediately swung shut behind him.
A sudden brightness blinded him from all angles, causing him to squeeze his eyes shut in agony. He whipped the night-vision goggles from his head. When he could finally open his eyes, he found he was no longer bathed in darkness, but in light.
Where before the shadowed masonry had tapered upward into blackness, the exterior castle walls were now transparent blocks of ice. Sunlight streamed in from all angles. Even the pitched roof was solid ice. The thickness of the interlocking rectangles along the walls refracted the whitewashed landscape, causing odd little jagged jumps where Lance knew there to be a straight line. It was like looking through a glass half-filled with water, except in this case, the glass completely surrounded him.
His gaze flew to his escape path. His footprints were smudged, but still visible leading out from the door. The rope fluttered in three distorted segments, but held strong to the outer wall. It would be there waiting, whenever he was ready.
Which he hoped was soon.
The transparent ice-roof magnified the rising sun, warming his wind-chapped fingers and returning blood to his toes until every extremity stung with the prickling of a thousand needles. He felt like an ant beneath a magnifying glass. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. The illusion reinforced the unsettling sensation that he was being toyed with. Much like a cat played with a trapped mouse before biting it in two.
He stepped out of his snowshoes and hung his climbing harness on the empty torch-hook beside what had recently been a thick wooden door, but was now an impressive block of door-shaped ice. The castle was virtually translucent. From the distance of even a few yards, his moss-green harness appeared to be hanging on nothing more substantive than a breath of air. He shook his head at the brain-bending illusion.
He turned in a slow circle, marveling at the blurred surrealism of being on the inside of a sprawling castle seemingly carved from a glacier of ice. Except there were no glaciers in this part of the world. Hadn’t been since the Ice Age. A shiver slid down his spine. If he’d had any doubts as to the existence of a curse, this little trick was more than enough to put his senses on full alert.
As soon as the numbness left his fingers, he touched them to the hilt of his sword and crept toward the first of the corridors.
Tried to creep, anyway. His ability to move in stealth was severely impacted by the transparent walls and over-bright luminescence permeating every nook and cranny. Which brought to light the second disturbing truth: if a blind man could find Lance amid the see-through walls and sun-bright glare, Lance ought to be able to easily spot anything resembling treasure.
Yet he hadn’t spotted so much as a cobweb. There were no tapestries, no portraits . . . no treasure. Nothing but empty torch racks and unlit sconces.
Until he reached the first corridor.
To the left stretched the outer wall of the keep. Two feet thick, twenty feet tall, and one hundred percent ice. To the right ran an interior wall of palest cobblestone. Pearly white and polished to a marbled sheen, but unquestionably solid rock.
Frowning, he glanced back toward the entranceway. Still ice. He faced the corridor again. Half ice, half stone. Curious, he moved in deeper until he came upon an open doorway. He peeked inside. The room was cold and completely empty, its walls made of solid stone. Lance returned to the hybrid hallway and tried to puzzle out the reason. It seemed the curse had turned the castle’s exterior-facing walls into ice, so the peninsular great hall had reaped the double-edged benefit of the sun’s warmth as well as its light. Yet the interior-facing walls had not been affected thusly, and were therefore subject to the same laws of physics as any other building.
That part was fine. Physics was something he understood. The complete lack of treasure—the complete lack of artwork or silver or anything of any worth at all—that was the deflating part. Apparently, Castle Cavanaugh was just as susceptible to looters as the next castle. So much for the big curse. And his one shot at saving his neck so he could live to see his boat.
He lit down the corridor, rushing from room to room in ever-increasing disbelief. There was no Golden Bloom of Eternal Youth anywhere in this vacant castle. There weren’t even any spiders. Or dust. Just room after empty room of nothing at all.
He veered off toward the corner tower. Although he’d explored barely a quarter of the ground floor, he took the claustrophobic spiral staircase up to the second level, in case only the first floor had been wiped clean.
No such luck.
The empty outer rooms were bathed in unrelenting sun, while the inner rooms were filled only with shadows. Nothing more.
He pushed at an inner door that should’ve led from one wing to the next, and paused in confusion to find himself in a windowless room the size of a large pantry. None of the other rooms had contained what he could only liken to a closet, so what was different about this one? Why did it even exist?
Before he had a chance to solve the mystery, part of what he’d assumed to be solid wall swung open from the opposite side of the pantry, and a young woman stepped through the portal with wide hazel eyes, long golden hair, and one hell of a healthy scream.
“Whither do you seek and whence do you hail?” she demanded the moment she caught her breath.
Lance was still reeling. The door from out of nowhere had been startling enough, but this chick’s medieval garb was a sight to behold. She singlehandedly put the entire Renaissance Faire franchise to shame.
Her diminutive figure was swathed in a resplendent multitiered gown of emerald green silk and spun-gold embroidery. Whether that figure was trim or curvy, he hadn’t the least idea. She had more layers than a celebrity wedding cake. He couldn’t even count them without getting distracted by everything else.
The visible layers of woven and hand-spun material involved an abundance of billowing skirts and flowing tunics. Intricate beading swirled with artistic embroidery at her hemline, and down the front slit of the topmost tunic. Matching jewels draped complicated loops of hair, from which several long golden tendrils escaped to her shoulders and down her back. Her heart-shaped bodice was laced with braided gold thread. Puffed white sleeves tapered to her wrists, where they met with a final explosion of delicate lace. Her feet were hidden beneath the voluminous gown, save for the tip of one tiny leather slipper, peeking just outside the bottom edge of a linen petticoat. She looked . . . authentically anachronistic.
He swallowed. This couldn’t possibly be a good sign.
“Uh . . . hey there,” he managed, trying for a trust-me smile. “I’m Lance, and your front door was unlocked, and I . . . Seriously, how can you stand upright when you’re saddled with that much material? That getup has to weigh twice as much as you do. Also, I’m hunting for a lost treasure. Haven’t seen a Golden Bloom lying around anywhere, have you?”
A shadow darkened the amber of her eyes.
“Mayhap ’tis treasure you seek,” she said darkly. “But ’tis ruin you shall find. Nay, good sir. I fear there is naught left in the keep but endless hours to while away.”
“So . . . no Golden Bloom, then. Got it.” He gave her two thumbs up and when that got no response (apart from raised eyebrows) he gave her his best knights-of-the-round-table bow.
Her expression didn’t change. It still said, you might be crazy.
He edged toward the door. “Well, that’s all I dropped by to ask, so I guess I’ll be going. Have a good day, Miss . . . What did you say your name was?”
“Princess Marigold of Castle Cavanaugh.” Her smile was pensive. “And I fear you are stuck here with me.”
Princess Marigold tensed, awaiting the new arrival’s inevitable horror and outrage at finding himself trapped within a fortress of ice. Predictably, the stranger slumped against the closest wall and pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead in a gesture of disbelief. Less predictably, he started to . . . laugh?
“No treasure,” he repeated as if it were all a grand jest. “No magic mushrooms, not even a gold coin. But hey. I found the princess in the very first castle.”
She nodded slowly, mystified.
He cast his gaze heavenward. “This never happens to Mario.”
She frowned. “Who is Mario?”
“A plumber. You don’t know him.” He pushed a hand through his hair. “Let’s take it from the top. You’re Princess Marigold of Castle Cavanaugh. Which means what? You live here? This lovely domicile is your property?”
“Aye. My forebears have been birthed within these walls for countless generations.”
“Wonderful. Are they here now?”
She hesitated, unsure how truthfully to respond to that query.
“Stumper question. Let me ask another way.” He tapped his chin in thought. “Does anyone else live in the castle? Any cousins? Pets? Maybe a pool boy?”
She shook her head. “’Tis only myself. And now you as well.”
“Lance,” he prompted with an engaging smile. “Lance Desmond, soldier of fortune, at your service. And the first service I intend to provide is: getting out of this castle.”
He pushed off from the wall and strode out into the corridor.
She had to hurry to keep up with him.
’Twasn’t easy. Now that the sun was overhead, the heat was intense.
This Lance had spoken true about her odd choice in vestments. But while the outer chambers of the keep sweltered beneath the rays of the noonday sun, the innermost chambers remained frigid. One could either stoke a banked fire several hours in advance, or simply double up on hose and sables beneath one’s gown. The latter was faster and more practical, particularly if one only intended a brief stay in the inner chambers.
And Marigold always intended a brief stay. But once she’d settled in with a few torches and a good book, the banality of her endless days faded against the rich worlds illustrated upon the page. ’Twas the only way she experienced any excitement. Well, usually.
This morn, she’d stepped from the hidden chamber only to find . . . Lance. And as was fair, she found his attire equally as puzzling.
His wavy hair, a deep chestnut, was cropped well above the neck. His eyes were an ocean blue and his teeth a dazzling white, but the rest of him was hidden beneath vestments of bluish black. His tunic was of some thin, form-fitting material. In place of a cloak, he wore a full-sleeved, waist-length outer garment. Straps of supple leather crisscrossed his chest and shoulders and hips, providing a multitude of loops and pouches to house every manner of indecipherable object. Clothing—much like language—had become more incomprehensible by the century.
He was taller than most men of Marigold’s acquaintance, and well-muscled in a trim, rather than burly, sort of way. Like the rest of his ensemble, his long black trousers bulged with pockets. Only his feet—clad in boots of a strange leather—were without tools and gadgetry strapped to this side or that. Verily, the only normalcy she could find in his person was the scabbard at his flank and the quiver of arrows upon his back.
Despite these many flaws, she supposed he was a handsome specimen. Winsome in a boyish yet manly sort of way. Although she could only comprehend every other word when he spoke, his manner was open and easy, and his eyes and smile engaging. Forsooth, he took the tidings of his unwitting captivity without shouts or tears. Rather than succumb to a quite understandable depression, he seemed to already have a scheme well afoot.
Having attempted escape every day of the first few centuries of her imprisonment, Marigold well knew all such plans were destined for disappointment. Nonetheless, his very optimism—the fact that he hadn’t entertained the probability of failure for even a moment—brought an exhilarating flutter of foolish, foolish hope to her belly. She did her best to tamp it down.
She knew better than to hope.
And yet she dashed down the twisting stairs right on his heels, heedless of her skirts trailing against the walls. He fairly flew out of the narrow tunnel the moment he stepped off the bottom stair, and was halfway down the corridor to the great hall before she caught up with him.
She imagined the door had still been a door when he’d opened it from the outside. ’Twas now a solid sheet of ice. His boots drove him thither without falter, as if the force of his will were powerful enough to vanquish any curse, no matter how evil.
He donned black leather gauntlets over each hand with curious cutouts for the fingertips, and retrieved some sort of harness from one of the empty torch hooks. Without pausing for another second, he shoved the great ice door.
It didn’t budge.
He pushed with both hands. When that didn’t work, he leveraged his shoulder. Then he backed up for a running start, slamming into the solid wall again and again until she was certain he’d knock his arm from its socket if he didn’t shatter it completely. He grunted with the pain of each impact, which only seemed to make him try harder.
The door held.
That foolish little frisson of hope was gone from her belly, replaced with the same dull hopelessness she’d carried around for the past six centuries.
She knew better than to hope.
Lance had not yet learned the lesson. He was still launching himself at the solid wall of ice, panting and sweating and hurtling headlong into the immovable barrier despite all reason.
Marigold reached out to stop him. Though her fingers managed to grapple one of his many leather straps, he broke free from her grasp to throw himself into the solid ice once more. Something cracked. It wasn’t the ice. He made no cry, as if oblivious to the pain. When he scrambled backward to take yet another running start, she threw herself before the great door. With her back flush against the ice, she splayed her legs and spread her arms, blocking him from the barrier.
He rushed forward as if he intended to spear straight through her, the ice, and anything else that dared get in his way. She held her position. At the last second he slowed, slumping into her like a lost child rather than barreling through her like a battering ram. Her arms closed around him of their own accord and he winced, as if even that slight pressure was too great after he’d misused his shoulder so badly.
He allowed himself the comfort of her touch for no more than a second before he was straight of spine and fearsome of face once more. Cautiously, she stepped away. She recognized a warrior’s determination when she saw it. He would not surrender easily. He approached the ice, warily, as a griffin might stalk its prey. He inspected the door from all angles, rising to his toes, crouching on bended knee.
She let him look his fill in peace. After so many centuries within these walls, she already knew what he would find. The slender channels demarcating the door from its frame and each rectangular block upon the walls were naught but illusion. The grooves were merely indentations, not points of weakness between two smaller, exploitable parts. There were no icy cobblestones; only the illusion of such. And there were no hinges or gaps about the door. There wasn’t even a door. There was only ice.
He whirled to face her.
“Where are the torches?” he demanded, gesturing at the bare walls.
She cupped her palm over her eyes to pointedly block out the sun’s blinding rays and repeated, “Torches?”
“You know. Fire. Don’t you have fire anywhere in this castle?”
She nodded slowly. Of course there was fire. The embers never fully died at the foot of her bed, and even now a cauldron of stew was a-boil in the kitchens. Alas, ’twould not help. Fire had—
“Never mind.” He motioned her aside with the opposite hand, clearly favoring his dominant shoulder. “You’re gonna want to stand back for this. Trust me.”
Although she doubted he would succeed where so many had failed, she took several precautionary steps backward.
From his belt, Lance unfastened a long gray cylinder about two hands’ widths in length, with the approximate circumference of a scabbard. A small red nub protruded from one side. When he glanced over his shoulder as if to confirm she stood at a safe distance, she took a few extra steps back. If he was worried, that device must be powerful indeed.
He aimed the cylinder at the wall of ice and pressed his thumb to the red nub.
A blinding flash filled the chamber, a light brighter than the sun, and her ears rang with the long-forgotten boom of cannon-fire.
Nothing else happened.
Lance stared in utter disbelief at the smoking cylinder in his hand, then hurled it into the unshaken ice with enough force to shatter the device into a thousand pieces.
Marigold held her tongue. Having grown up surrounded by lords and knights, she could well recognize a man unused to having his will thwarted. Especially by an inanimate object.
Then again, Marigold didn’t believe the castle was inanimate. Or even insentient. It had taken centuries to break her will, but she was convinced that the castle had enjoyed every interminable moment. It taunted her with its very existence. Transparent exterior walls constantly mocked her with a full view of a world she could never again join. Forever held captive in a dungeon of ice, clear as glass and hard as crystal.
She wouldn’t be surprised to learn she wasn’t immortal after all, but trapped in the depths of Hell.
Lance appeared to be reaching a similar conclusion.
Rather than a white flag, he unfastened a second gray cylinder from his belt. His expression was no longer one of hope and determination, but disbelief bordering on despair. Marigold took another step back. He aimed the device and depressed the red nub. As before, a loud boom and a bright flash reverberated through the great hall.
And as before, he hurled the spent cylinder into the closest wall.
“Maybe it’s not firing,” he said with sudden, mad hope. “Maybe something about the low temperatures with the cheap plastic and . . . Didn’t you say there was fire somewhere? Let’s get some fire, then let’s find the weakest point in the ice.”
Although she knew from soul-deadening experience that there were no weak points in the ice, Marigold also remembered the driving need to try everything, no matter how slender the odds, on the slight chance that mayhap, this time, ’twould have an effect.
She led him to the kitchens.
“Are you cooking?” he said in surprise, taking in the cauldron and the sideboard. “How much can one woman eat? You’ve got, what . . . twelve loaves of bread and twice as much on the way? Good Lord. This is the biggest kettle of soup I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and that block of cheese is even taller than I am. More than enough to feed an army. I’d love to see what you’d whip up if you actually expected guests. Do they not practice moderation here in Castle Cavanaugh? Where do you even get groceries?”
He didn’t seem to expect responses to any of his queries, which was a boon, since Marigold was disinclined to provide any answers. There were certain things he needed to know—like being imprisoned with no hope of escape—and there were other things he was better off not knowing.
Things she wished she didn’t know either.
He found the torches hanging outside the scullery and lit the wick ends as dangerously as possible—by shoving them all into the fire at once. She opened her mouth to warn him, then clapped a hand o’er her lips before Do you wish to burn down the keep? could trip from her tongue. A bubble of hysterical laughter threatened to escape her throat. Aye. He very much wished to burn down the keep. Would that he were able to!
He handed her a torch for each hand and lit two more for himself before gesturing her to follow his lead. He trekked from voiding-lobby to bailey, and from outer chamber to inner chamber, thrusting the orange flames at each embossed window or angled arrow slit they passed.
“Shouldn’t some sections of ice be thinner than others?” he demanded once it became clear that even windowless “bars” were actually solid sheets of ice.
“Naught that you see is real,” she reminded him softly. “’Tis illusion that makes you think panes of glass should be thinner than blocks of stone. The ice is deep as my arm, and solid as lava rock. You can apply all the flame you wish, but I have ne’er seen even a droplet of dew form on its surface. ’Tis impenetrable and indestructible. Such is the curse, and has been such for centuries.”
He turned to glare at her, a flaming torch in each hand. “What is the curse, exactly? Tell it to me word for word.”
“Weel . . .” Her gaze slid from his.
His mouth fell open. “You don’t know?”
“I was sotted!” she protested. “Christmas Eve marks the anniversary of my birth, and the wine flowed freely. Throughout the Yuletide, ’tis traditional to drink wassail and dance until—”
“You were partying?” He gaped at her in disbelief. “You can’t remember the curse that trapped you inside a castle for hundreds of years, because you were too drunk to pay attention. That’s great. Very helpful. Way to black out during the most important moment of your life.”
She folded her arms over her chest and glared at him. There were no recriminations he could inflict upon her that she hadn’t already suffered. And say what he would, her mead consumption was the least of her troubles. “I would nay have heard the words, were I dry as timber. The curse was spoken outside the castle walls.”
“Ah.” He nodded slowly, as if to himself. “Makes sense. I’d stay out of the line of fire, too, if I had those skills. But what about everyone else? I can’t believe no one thought to jot anything down.”
Her smile was as brittle as her heart. “When I awoke the next morn, there wasn’t anyone else.”
“They left?” His expression transformed from outrage to delight. “But that’s awesome! We just need to figure out how they did it, and then do the same thing. Any ideas? I mean, did you see anyone leave?”
She’d seen everything. Been spared nothing. A shudder snaked down her spine. She swallowed hard. “No one ‘left.’ They were just . . . gone.”
He shook his head as if her words held no meaning. Mayhap they didn’t. ’Twas for the better. She had no wish to explain. His forehead wrinkled as though a thousand more questions flooded his mind. Something in the bleakness of her expression must have convinced him the answers would only darken his mood, for at last he simply nodded. “Okay. I get that breaking out of here can’t be easy, or you’d’ve already done it. But there’s got to be a way.”
She made no reply. She would have broken free by now, if freedom were there to find. She’d taken both ax and flame to every inch of the castle grounds, and had gained nothing but disappointment after disappointment. She no longer went through the motions. There was no point. She still dreamed of finding a way out, but she no longer believed in the possibility. Not for her, and definitely not for him.
Lance rubbed at his temples. “I must be missing something. I haven’t slept since the night before last and I’m not thinking at a hundred percent. The castle will still be here tomorrow, right? That’s the curse. Twenty-four hours is nothing. What I need is a good night’s sleep. Maybe I’ll wake up with the answer.”
That happy moment, Marigold reflected dismally, would categorically not happen. He would not sleep through the night. Nor would he ever wake up. Come morning, he would simply be . . .