I stood at the top of the stairs, watching anxiously as our guests entered the palace through the reception hall. After listening to the witch in the thicket I was nervous, wondering if this mystery girl, this girl who was supposed to help inspire our entire victory, this girl that I was possibly meant to even fall in love with, this girl with a bow of gold would come tonight. My eyes scanned the faces, the gowns, but especially the weapons that came through the front door, hoping that they would catch sight of a glimmer of gold.
After my meeting with the witch I thought long and hard about how would be the best way to find my golden girl. Gathering all the girls in the kingdom together seemed like the quickest solution. Gaining my father’s blessing on the event was easy. He thought that I was merely trying to make a match for myself, and I didn’t feel the need to correct his assumption. He happily agreed to the arrangement, and even took over the majority of the planning himself. It had been an entire year since I saw him so happy and so engaged. It felt like I was beginning to get my father back again.
Women of all ages were now pouring through the doors. Young and old, short and tall, petite and portly, all were making their way into the grand Assembly Hall. Swords, cimeters, spears, shields, bows, all manner of weaponry came through the doors as well. But there was no golden bow.
The assembly began and so started the long procession of female warrior hopefuls.
Miss Clemens started it off pretty well with her energetic sword fight with one of the royal guard, that is until she broke one of her nails and started throwing a tantrum, unbecoming to any lady.
Miss Gaudry surprised everyone when she pulled out a mace from behind her back and started smashing pumpkins all over the floor of the Assembly Hall. I applauded her efforts, but she kind of scared me a bit.
Miss Jaques was an impressive knife thrower, hitting her straw target square in the forehead every time. However, at the end she seemed put out that I didn’t fall down and beg her to marry me right then and there. She walked away with a disgruntled flounce of her skirts.
Next up were the daughters of my father’s royal commander, Colonel Tremaine. After seeing his prowess in battle I was surprised to discover the girls had received little to none of his remarkable talent and skill. Miss Anastasia tried her hand at archery, unable to hit the target even once. And Miss Drusilla, the pudgy one, attempted to throw a spear, failing to notice that it was positioned backwards. Upon hearing the tittering of poorly concealed giggles throughout the assembly, in a sudden violent outburst Lady Tremaine wrenched the knob off the top of her staff and threw the projectile full force into the head of the straw target, the power of the hit pushing the target support back a full ten feet.
The Assembly Hall grew silent, unsure of whether to applaud her marksmanship or politely ignore her outburst.
All of a sudden there was the noise of a disturbance going on behind the entry doors. There were shouts of my men outside, a banging against the door, and then suddenly it was flung open. There standing in the open doorway was what I could only describe as a vision.
She stood there strong and beautiful, with a stance that said she was ready to fight. The moon light shone from behind her, casting a pearly sheen on her entire form. Her long golden hair was left unrestrained, and it fluttered around her face from the breeze that was coming in from the cool night air. Her exquisite blue gown was tattered and dirty at the hem, exposing practical riding boots and a peek at her leg. She had multiple leather straps attached to her body, with weaponry and gear ready to be tested. Her face was hidden with a brown leather mask, but I could see that she was beautiful.
Finally, in her hand was a golden bow.
“I’m sorry, Your Highness, she insisted on entering, even though it is clearly beyond the hour,” one of the guards from outside shouted as he attempted to grasp the golden girl by the arm. She turned to look at him with an exasperated expression, and looked toward me for help.
“Stop!” I cried. “Let her enter!”
The guard reluctantly let go of her arm and she began to step inside.
Another guard came running inside. “She rode in on Your Highness’ horse!” he spluttered.
“Sampson?” I asked, incredulous. I looked at the girl and she gave me a shrug. I shook my head and laughed. As if the witch thought that I would need any more signs!
“He is a magnificent animal, Your Highness,” the golden girl spoke for the first time. Her melodic voice was soft and warm. I felt transfixed, my only desire to hear her speak again. She stood waiting for my response, but I felt slow and stupid.
Before I could gather my wits about me there was another crashing sound coming from outside and the echo of shouts and running feet.
One of my young guards from the gate ran up to us at the door. He gave his breathless report.
“Your Highness, we are under attack. The creatures appeared to have followed the woman in. There are about twenty of them, and they seem especially ferocious tonight.”
I turned to look at the golden girl. Her eyes were wide, but she had a resolute and determined look on her face. She nodded her head.
“I will fight with you,” she said, and I knew that I had found the one. Together we raced outside to the outer courtyard.
As I approached the palace I could see that the doors to the front gate were already closed tight. The sun was completely set now and the moon was beginning to rise over the top of the trees. I urged Sampson on, digging my heels into his sides, but was still unsure how I was going to get through the gate.
Once I reached the gate I could see a guard on top keeping watch. I called up to him.
“Ho there, sir!” I cried. “Please open the gate! I would like to attend the royal assembly this evening!”
The guard looked down at me, seemingly unsure of what to do. Clearly his orders were to keep the gate locked at sundown, but I did not in any way resemble one of the undead wandering in the night.
“Please, sir! I must see the prince! I have information that is vital to the future of the kingdom!”
He seemed to think a little harder about that bit.
Suddenly I could hear the familiar groaning of approaching zombies. This time there was a difference, however. As I turned, I could see that there were two fast approaching. Instead of their usual slow movements, with the halted and laborious gait, they were running at full speed and were almost upon me.
The guard saw them as well.
“Please, sir!” I cried up to him. “Don’t leave me out here!”
He seemed to finally make his decision, ducking behind the gate. A moment later I heard the slow, rattling creek of the gears spinning to unlock the heavy wooden doors. He was moving too slowly. Two of the undead were already upon me.
Still on Sampson’s back, I loaded the golden bow with one of the perfect golden arrows. It shot almost instantaneously into the skull of my closest attacker, practically moving on its own accord. The zombie crumpled to the ground, a pile of dead bones. A second later and its companion had joined it on the earth, an arrow through its eye socket.
The gate finally opened and Sampson did not wait for me to prod him through the door. We galloped past the guard, heading straight for the palace. Several guards followed me shouting to stop, but I paid them no heed.
At the entrance I slid off Sampson’s back and pounded up to the front door, but a guard surprised me from the side. We scuffled at the door until finally I was able to wrench it open.
I did not have to look far. There he was, walking into the entrance hall from the room beyond. I would have recognized him anywhere, even without his royal golden coat. I had often seen him playing in the courtyard when we were both children. I frequently visited the palace when my father was on duty training the royal guard, bringing him his lunch or finding any other excuse to come spend time with him while he worked. I would spy on Prince Philip as he played pirates with his companions from the royal staff, or as he was practicing his fencing skills with his tutor. I was shy, so I never approached him, but I dreamt from afar about the day that I would march right up to him and make myself known. I wished that I had done that long ago, and joined him in his fighting adventures.
It was time to start a fighting adventure of our own now.
As he stopped the guard from throwing me out, I thought for a moment that he recognized me. The look in his eyes was so intense, that it took my breath away.
I would do anything for this man, and to be looked at in that manner by him again.
The shouts from outside were insistent and loud. The zombies had breached the outer wall and were in the courtyard, attacking the guards.
“I will fight with you,” I said, returning his intense gaze.
As we turned to join the battle, I caught sight of my stepmother standing in the doorway to the entrance hall, her long staff in hand. She was looking at me with undisguised fury, obviously not fooled by the cover of my mask. I quickly turned away. She was not my concern right now.
Outside the battle was becoming intense. The guards were doing their best to destroy the attacking zombies, but the creatures were fighting with a stronger intensity and a vicious strength. More and more of the men were falling, their screams piercing the air as the undead ripped at their flesh with inhuman strength. More creatures were entering through the main gate. I knew this battle would not end well in this enclosed place.
I started letting arrows fly, their deadly accuracy quickly taking down my foe. Prince Philip drew his sword and launched himself at an attacker that had its arm around the throat of one of his guard, just about to clamp its black mouth over the man’s ear. A zombie rushed at me from the side, taking me by surprise, and my arrow found its way through the creature’s neck. The brain not completely severed from the body, it continued to advance. Suddenly there was a quick swishing swipe, and the head dropped off the body, landing in the dirt. Philip stood there, panting, pulling back his sword.
“Thank you,” I croaked.
“Don’t mention it,” he said, bowing his head slightly.
We returned to the battle.
There were even more creatures pouring into the grounds. I could hear the cries behind me from the palace from the women who were not quite ready to join in the fight. Some were out among us, however, slashing swords and throwing spears.
This wasn’t going to work. There were too many people here with too many possibilities of casualties. We were outnumbered. There was no way to contain the creatures enough to destroy them with fire, as the old woman had advised.
As I watched a young woman succumb to a violent blow from an attacker much larger than her, her lifeless frame crumpling to the dirt, a cold sickness swelled from inside me. This was my fault. The song of my bow had lured these creatures here, instilling in them an unearthly drive to attack. Instead of being ready for their onslaught, I had handed them a palace full of living flesh and blood. I had to draw them away.
“Your Highness!” I cried, running to the prince’s side. He swept the lock of dark hair that was falling into his eyes aside with the back of his bloody hand.
“We cannot win this here!” I said. “I will draw them away from the palace. You must secure the gates behind me.”
The prince’s eyes grew wide. He grabbed my arm, pulling me closer to him.
“No! What are you talking about?”
“You must trust me,” I begged, placing my hand on his that was still firmly grasped around my arm. I drew it gently from his grasp.
I placed my fingers in my lips and whistled a long note out, ending it in a pattern of three short chirps. It was the call my father used to signal his horses.
Sampson rounded the corner and was by my side in a moment, snorting and shaking his head in agitation at the creatures that were surrounding him.
I mounted him with ease, the prince looking at me in bewilderment.
“You must secure the gates,” I directed again, hoping that he would do as I say.
Pulling the reins, I directed Sampson toward the doors to the gate. He immediately complied and we flew on. I hoped that it would be enough, and the zombies would follow us out of the courtyard. Just then I thought that I heard a gentle thrum vibrating in the air. The golden bow was strapped across my shoulder and I could feel a subtle hum emanating through my body. The quicker we rode, the more intense the thrumming sounded through me.
By the time we crossed the outer gate, I could hear the wailing and screeching of the undead creatures attempting to follow. We rode harder and harder. I could only hope that Sampson could outrun these new and intensified vermin of the night.
I stood there dumbfounded as the golden girl mounted my own horse.
“You must secure the gates,” she told me firmly, and then she was off.
Within moments of her leaving there was a strange unearthly sound that resonated around the courtyard. I call it a sound, but really it was more of a humming vibration in the air that I could feel in my chest and into my bones. This sound seemed to catch the creatures’ attention. They shook their heads, trying to cover their ears, but soon they all turned and left the blood and gore of the courtyard, following the girl and horse.
“Secure the gate!” I called to the guard who was stationed at the large metal gears, and he began to close the great doors.
A glint of gold caught my eye lying in the dirt. As I approached it I saw that it was one of the girl’s golden arrows. I picked it up and felt the same thrumming run through my arm, but it quickly dissipated, leaving behind a warm sensation.
I looked up as the gates closed upon the last of the fleeing vermin, and I could just make out the girl and horse riding in the distance before they were blocked from my view.
Who was this girl? I had to find her. She mustn’t fight these creatures alone.
I called to the closest guard that I could find.
“Prepare my horse…I mean, another horse. I must leave at once.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” he replied, and ran off toward the direction of the stables.