March 2020

She was five when I married Reynard, a sweet, shy child, bewildered by the loss of her mother. At first, she rejected me. But with patience and understanding, a gentle approach, and a lot of stuffed animals (the first 20 or so went out her tower window), I was able to help her overcome her grief and anger. For years we grew steadily closer. She became my daughter. Then when she was thirteen, she changed, almost overnight. I seriously considered having Father Friedrich attempt an exorcism. The idea still crosses my mind occasionally.

Every day was a battle: arguments, screaming, foul language. She wanted to go to parties, but wouldn’t tell me where or with whom, snarling that it was none of my business. She wanted to go to sleep-overs at a friend’s, but never knew the friend’s last name. When she was fifteen, she wanted to be able to drink wine. Several of her classmates were going to Anvelkan on the coast for spring break, and she wanted to go. Alone. No security. Of course, the answer was usually no, and I was always the one to hand down the decision. Reynard was too busy being Reynard II, King of Vesla and Emperor of the Golden Isles.

She was the Crown Princess, schooled in court etiquette and protocol, yet she saw no problem appearing in public wearing almost invisible bikinis. And the makeup! She looked like she’d been learning from Fast Freda, the whore who has the corner at Market and 5th.

Dinnertime was particularly stressful, since Reynard insisted that she eat with us.

“How was school today, Snowy?” I asked one evening.

Reynard put his fork down and, shaking his head, covered his eyes.

Snowy glanced up at me under long, dark lashes, her bright blue eyes flashing with anger. She tossed back her long black hair.

“Fine,” she grunted.

“Did you learn anything interesting?”

“No.”

“What are you studying now in history?”

She grimaced. “Can’t we just eat dinner?”

“I was just trying to learn about your day, dear.”

“Stop prying into my affairs!” she exploded. “What do you care anyway? You hate me just like you hated my mother!”

I reeled back. “I don’t hate you. I love you, Snowy. And I never knew your mother.”

“You’re trying to take her place! You’re not my mother! You’re just a horrible old witch! I hate you!” she screamed and threw down her fork, spraying Lobster Newburg across the pristine white tablecloth. She bolted, knocking over her chair.

I stared at my plate, appetite gone. “Horrible old witch?” I whined.

Reynard stretched his hand out toward me, although the table was too long for him to reach. “You take this too personally. She doesn’t mean it. And you’re not old.” Love and concern warmed his voice, although I had trouble seeing him past the candelabra.

I glared at him “So does that mean I’m a horrible witch? And what way am I supposed to take it?”

“Well, Elizabeth says we should loosen up our restrictions on her. Give her more of a free rein. She thinks…”

“Elizabeth is a meddling idiot.” I snapped and I, too, exited…hopefully with more dignity.

Reynard keeps saying that it’s a phase, that she’ll grow out of it. Reynard is a great King, but he’s useless when it comes to his daughter.

My Ladies-in-Waiting agreed with Reynard, and with Elizabeth, the Prime Minister. Lady Marta told me about her daughter, Lizette, how horrible she was. “And now we’re just the best of friends,” she simpered. But Snowy’s anger and resentment of me were escalating. I thought something more was going on. Someone was actively turning her against me.

I was tired of having Elizabeth, Lady Bywaters, Duchess of Kurness, Reynard’s Prime Minister, butt her rather long nose into our personal affairs. She never liked me. She nearly had a hemorrhage, when Reynard started dating me and fairly bled to death when we got married. She didn’t like commoners, especially commoners that married kings. I remember how she looked at me when we first met. The hate that sparked in her dark blue eyes lasted only a moment. If I hadn’t been watching, I would have missed it. My maids told me that she had been making moves on Reynard. Apparently Prime Minister wasn’t good enough. She wanted to be the Queen. Reynard seemed oblivious to it all.

Two nights ago, the guards had caught Snowy sneaking out the postern gate at the back of the vegetable garden. I grounded her indefinitely. Furious, she refused to eat or to work with her tutors. She called her math teacher a… an unprintable word. Madame von Gutsberg resigned. That was it. I had to do something. I sent for Murdoch. I know. I know. Murdoch is a thief and an assassin, but he was my guardian from the time I was three, and I trust him. I assigned him to watch her.

Grounded or not, she got out again.

“She’s meeting a boy named Harold, son of Seymour the Sly, the new chief of the Assassins’ Guild.” Murdoch was sitting in an armchair in my office, one leg hooked over the arm of the chair, sipping from a glass of red wine.

Shocked, I said “New chief of the Assassins’ Guild? What happened to Samvar the Elder?”

“He was pushed off a roof two months ago.”

“Why am I finding out about this now?” I asked quietly, temper flaring.

Murdoch looked surprised. “You haven’t called me for a report in six months.”

I rose and glared at him. “I am the Queen of Vesla! Did it not occur to you that I might be interested in any changes in the organized crime hierarchy?” Then I stopped and thought about it. I reseated myself. He was right. I had been so busy that I had forgotten how valuable a resource Murdoch is. Or how valuable a friend. But I could kick myself later.

“Sorry. You’re right. Fill me in.”

He regarded me with a raised eyebrow. “You do the Queen thing very well, Genie.”

“Don’t use that name, Murdoch. No one knows who I used to be and let’s keep it that way, shall we? Now what happened to Samvar and where did this Seymour come from?”

Later that night I decided to consult the Mirror. I had found it several years ago in my explorations of the less well traveled portions of the castle. The obnoxious thing usually just says I’m the fairest of them all, as if that were somehow meaningful. It also tends to be extremely sarcastic. Sometimes, though, I can get useful information out of it.

“Mirror, mirror that I see,
What does Snowy want of me?”

A face formed in the glass, green eyes very like mine. “That’s a pathetic attempt at rhyme, Regina.”

“Yeah, yeah. If you didn’t require the poetic intro every time, I wouldn’t have to make up ridiculous rhymes. But what is she up to?”

The emerald eyes narrowed, regarding me closely. “You won’t like it.” the Mirror warned.

“I know I won’t like it,” I growled. “Just tell me.”

“Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” A pause for effect. “It appears that she’s trying to have you assassinated.”

I stepped back, banged into the chair behind me, and sat down abruptly. “She’s what?” I squeaked.

“Trying to have you killed. As in dead, defunct, deceased, lifeless, late…”

“But… but why?” I asked, my heart sinking.

“Because she thinks you were responsible for her mother’s death.”

“But that’s ridiculous! I didn’t even know her mother!” I could feel tears start up.

“You married her husband.”

“But… but I didn’t even meet him until Giselle had been dead for a year. And that was accidental. He fell off his stupid horse right in front of me and I kept the beast from trampling him.”

“I know that. You know that. But apparently Snow White doesn’t accept that version of events. Someone is exerting influence over her.”

“Who? What can I do?” I wailed.

“You’ve already had your questions answered tonight. In addition, you’d probably start on another series of ‘buts’, and I have a headache. Another night and another rhyme. Make it a better one next time.” With that, the Mirror darkened and the interview was over.

I couldn’t tell Reynard about this development. He doted on his daughter. He wouldn’t believe that his little girl could be a vindictive, bloodthirsty little monster. Our marriage hadn’t been perfect, but it had been loving and happy. I wasn’t willing to upset the status quo by revealing the truth about my past. At least not yet.

As I contemplated this thought, I was walking back to my suite down a dark hallway in the mostly unused part of the castle. Sconces were supposed to light the way, but quite a few were out. I was thinking that I’d have to tell Alfred, the seneschal of the castle, about it in the morning, when three shapes emerged from the shadows and reached for me.

Old habits never die. I smashed the candle into one hairy face, catching his beard on fire. Whirling, I wrenched my arm from the grasp of another and kicked the third in the crotch. The previously silent halls resounded to the screams and moans of my attackers. Beard Guy put out the flames, and he and his uninjured buddy drew blades. They approached with more caution, but with vindictive grins on their ugly faces.

I grinned back at them and that predatory smile made them hesitate. “I wouldn’t do this, if I were you,” I warned. They laughed, and, together, they jumped me. But I wasn’t there anymore. I had pirouetted sideways, and they hit the wall. Kicking Beard Guy in the butt made him lose his balance, crashing to the floor and leaving me just one opponent for the moment. I drew my own knife and pounced on him, slicing his right arm, then dancing away. He screeched and dropped his blade. The moaner on the floor was getting to his feet again, so I had to end this quickly. I slammed my fist into his temple, and he went back down. Beard Guy was back on his feet and I tried kicking him where it would hurt, but the damned skirts interfered and I hit his thigh. He sliced the air an inch from my nose and I dove under his arm and stuck my knife in his side. He howled.

The third one had come up behind me, and I felt a sudden pain in my right arm. Leaving my dagger in the bearded one, I slammed my left elbow into the bulbous nose of my last attacker. He howled, dropping his knife and clapping both hands to his face as blood spurted. I gathered up my damn skirts and ran. They didn’t follow.

Back at the residence, I entered through the secret passageway I used when I consulted the Mirror. My Ladies-in-Waiting had their rooms just down the hall from my suite. Sometimes I didn’t want them watching me. Changing out of my bloodied dress, I examined the wound in my arm. It wasn’t bad, so I washed and bandaged it.

I mulled over this new development. Next time Seymour might send better talent. But I couldn’t let anyone know about the attack. Or could I?

Combing my hair, my eyes met those in the mirror, just reflections this time. But the green had gone hard. It was time for a little stepmother-stepdaughter heart-to-heart chat.

I used another secret passageway to get to Snow White’s rooms. Pausing at the hidden entrance, which was wide open, I listened. All was quiet except for low murmuring from the sitting room. I slipped into the bedroom. Crossing on the soft blue carpet, I was silent. Snowy and a teenaged boy were half sitting, half lying on a white couch, busily pawing one another.

“Ahem!” I announced my presence.

Two pairs of eyes swung toward me, but they were so tangled up in each other that their noses banged together and they drew back with gasps of pain. I had trouble not laughing.

“Regina!” Snow White yelped. “But you should be…I mean…what are you doing here?”

The boy was on his feet, sidling towards the secret entrance. He was tall and lanky with greasy brown hair falling over his eyes, probably to hide the pimples.

“You! Harold! Sit!” I commanded, pointing at him. And he sat. “Good boy.”

I returned my attention to Snowy. “Your three incompetent thugs were unable to dispatch one solitary woman.” Snowy went as pale as her name, and her big blue eyes got even bigger.

My glare skewered Harold. “Tell Seymour to get better talent. And tell him that if he does send anyone else, I won’t just hurt them. I’ll kill them, and then I’ll come and remove his toes with a butter knife. Capiche?

Harold nodded vigorously.

“And as for you, you get your skinny, young ass out of this castle and keep it out, or it will end up decorating the wall in the deepest dungeon…forever. Do…you…understand?” The volume of my voice had risen. I was leaning over him, my nose one inch from his.

Harold nodded and slipped out of the chair from under my looming presence. Continuing to nod enthusiastically, he raced through the bedroom and out the secret passageway.

I sighed. “What good does it do to have a secret passageway, if you tell people about it?”

Snowy had recovered her attitude, rising from her chair. “Why didn’t you just kill him? Just bring your guards in and have him thrown out a tower? You can make him disappear. Just like you killed my mother.” She was right in my face, yelling.

I had tried to remain cool, but enough was enough. I lost it. I placed my hands on her shoulders and pushed her up against the wall. Staring into her suddenly widened eyes, I snarled “Get this straight, daughter. I don’t need guards to make someone disappear. And I didn’t kill your mother. I never met her. I don’t know who planted this idea in your head, but by all that’s holy, I’m going to find out. And then I’m going to make him regret his birth. And understand this.” I loosened my hold on her, still staring into her eyes. “I love you, Snowy, and always have. But you’re making it difficult.” I turned and left, feeling Snowy’s gimlet eye drilling into my back, until the secret panel closed behind me.

The next morning, Snow White didn’t appear at breakfast. I didn’t think His Royal Majesty, Reynard the Second, noticed. He kept his nose buried in reports and only replied in monosyllabic grunts to my comments. Vesla was the site of the annual economic conference for the Five Kingdoms this week. Reynard would be hosting the conference. He was up to his ears in economic forecasts and spreadsheets.

He said, “Check her room. She’s probably there, sulking.” So much for not noticing.

I went to Snowy’s rooms. Lady Gertrude told me her bed had not been slept in. Damn! The girl was out and running around again. I sent word to Murdoch.

He was stymied. None of his sources had heard anything. We talked about possibilities, while Murdoch drank my wine, draped over the armchair. I paced the huge room.

There was a knock, and Reynard came in. He stopped abruptly, when he saw Murdoch, sprawled in the chair. “Hello,” he said hesitantly, his perpetually smiling face reflecting some confusion. “Do I know you?”

Murdoch stood up and bowed to his king, making a very nice flourish with his feathered hat. Murdoch is a very handsome man, now in his late forties, always impeccably groomed in the latest styles. “No, Your Majesty. I have never been important enough to come to your attention,” trying to look humble and not succeeding. “I am Murdoch, the thief.”

Reynard’s smile faltered even further, almost slipping all the way off his gentle face. “Oh,” he said and looked to me.

“Your Majesty, may I present Murdoch the Agile, the most talented thief in Vesla.” I hesitated. But it was past time to come clean. “And the man who raised me when my parents were murdered.”

My husband continued to look bewildered for a moment. Then he seemed to stand taller, and the King looked out from his suddenly stern face. “Why have I never met this gentleman, Regina?”

“Because he’s a thief, Your Majesty. He tries to keep to a low profile. And we try to keep you separated from thieves and assassins, my liege.”

Reynard had never been exposed to the elements from my past. I had managed to beguile him with a tale of an orphan, whose merchant parents had been lost at sea and who had been raised in the church orphanage.

Reynard stared at me for a long minute, his gray eyes suddenly hardening. I began to fidget. “So. Are you telling me that the story of your childhood is just that…a story?”

I stared back at him, weighing my options. I sighed. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

Murdoch was carefully levering himself out of the chair. Without taking his gaze from my face, Reynard snapped, “You stay where you are, Murdoch!” Murdoch sighed and sat down.

“Would you care to explain, Regina?” It wasn’t a request. It was a command.

I straightened up and looked him in the eye. “My parents were members of the Assassins’ Guild. They were very well trained, very talented, but they were killed during a power struggle within the Guild, when I was three. Murdoch saved my life and took me in, when he was just a teenager. I grew up in the Guild and was trained as a thief and assassin. And the only reason Murdoch is the best thief in Vesla now is because I’m retired.”

Reynard’s eyebrows drew together. “Regina,” he said. “A short form of that name could be Genie. Couldn’t it?”

I continued to meet his gaze. “Yes, it could.”

“And nothing has been heard of Genie for many years.”

“She retired to take up another profession.”

He nodded. Reynard, like the fox for which he is named, is very quick. “I see.”

I regarded him with concern. “Do you?”

Walking to the windows, he looked out over the sunlit roofs of his capital. “I do wish you had trusted me enough to tell me the truth.” For a long moment he studied the beautiful scene of orange and red roofs and towers and then he turned back and regarded me. “I love you, woman. The only disturbing aspect of this information is that I was unaware of it until now. I could have used your knowledge. You should have told me!” And for the first time since I wrestled a horse away from his prone body, I saw real anger in his eyes.

Taking a great interest in the colorful mosaic tile floor, I murmured an apology, feeling forlorn, as well as really, truly stupid. “You’re right, Reynard. I… I don’t have any excuse except…for stupidity.”

Murdoch had risen again from his chair and was slithering toward the door. “Sit, Murdoch!” Reynard and I said, almost in unison. We looked at each other and grinned. Murdoch sat down in the armchair, muttering something about things not being fair.

Reynard stepped over to my desk and planted a hip on it, regarding Murdoch with intense interest. “We will discuss this further, Regina. So. Master Murdoch. Just what brings you to the castle this fine morning?”

Murdoch looked to me.

I sighed. “Well, since you’re here, you can help us decide what to do, my liege. We have a problem.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Problem?”

“Snowy. She’s disappeared.”

Murdoch chipped in. “And none of my sources have heard any rumors.”

Reynard’s eyes widened and he paled. “Good God! Why? What happened?” He looked at me. “Did something happen between the two of you?”

I told him about the events of the night before.

“It was stupid of me to be so aggressive, but I was angry.” My eyes filled with tears. “I’ve driven her away! Now she’ll never listen to me.”

Reynard enfolded me in his arms. “We’ll get her back, darling.” he soothed. “I’ll have Colonel Gebhart start investigating…”

“No!” I yelped. “No! Gebhart’s a competent officer, but he knows nothing about the underworld in Heimar. Not like Murdoch and I do.”

“What do you suggest?”

Murdoch leaned forward. “Genie and I will go undercover to find her.”

Reynard stared at him, then at me, then at Murdoch again. “The two of you? Just the two of you?” He glowered at Murdoch. “You’re seriously suggesting that a thief and the Queen of Vesla should go sneaking off in the night in disguise to rescue the Crown Princess from some underworld baron?”

Murdoch frowned. “Well…yes.”

“That’s…that’s preposterous!” Reynard’s pallor had changed to ruddy.

I stepped in. “There’s no one better qualified. And there’s no one else who can carry this off successfully. We’ll do it tonight.” I turned away and began to pace again while Reynard was still sputtering. “I have a meeting with the wives of the heads of state this afternoon. I mustn’t miss that. And there’s the welcoming banquet tonight. But I’ll get everything organized before then and we can leave right afterward.”

Reynard’s face was a battleground of conflicting emotions. “Regina. Please. I can’t lose you. And while Genie’s reputation is formidable, there’s much that is unbelievable. There must be another way.”

Now it was my turn to turn a stony gaze on my love. “Believe it. All of it. I am incredibly good at my job.” I frowned. “At both my jobs.” I stretched up on my toes and kissed his cheek. “I love you, too, my darling. But this is something I have to do. And Snowy’s life may depend upon it.”

Eyes troubled, he slowly nodded. And then he got this silly grin on his face and began to laugh.

“What?” I asked.

“My wife, Regina I, Queen of Vesla, and Empress of the Golden Isles, is the most notorious outlaw in the Five Kingdoms! I don’t know whether to be horrified or proud.”

The western horizon was bleeding reds and gold into the sky, as Murdoch and I slipped out the postern gate, dressed in black and rid of those awful skirts for a while. I smiled at him. “Like old times.”

Murdoch smiled his crooked grin. “That it is, my girl. That it is.”

We moved from shadow to shadow in the better lighted areas of the city, crawling at times. The City Guard had changed from a fixed route to random years ago, at my suggestion. It was too easy to avoid them otherwise. Murdoch spotted a patrol just a block away in time for us to freeze in position with our heads down. They never saw us. I noticed that they were back to marching in unison and shook my head. I’d have to talk to Colonel Gebhart again – this time more forcefully.

The poorer areas had fewer lights and we slid through the darkness like sharks through the kelp forests. As we crossed Market, we heard Murdoch’s name called. Turning we saw Fast Freda hurrying toward us.

“Murdoch! I’m so glad to see you, I heard some news… Oh, my God! Genie! It’s you! It’s so good to see you. Where have you been? I’d love to stop and chat, but…” She grabbed Murdoch’s arm. “Slippery Steve heard from Gertie over on 8th and Fenmore that the 7 Dwarfs gang are meeting in the old factory, down by the river. You know, the abandoned one that’s falling apart. They’ve been in and out of there a lot. And Gertie said someone spotted four of them carrying a package into the building last night. And the package was squirming and cursing something awful.”

I reached out and grasped Freda’s arm. “Thanks, Freda.” and we hurried on.

Halfway to the factory, we were passing an alley, when a trash barrel rolled out in front of us and a tenor voice cried out “Stand and deliver!”

“Stand and deliver?” repeated Murdoch quizzically. “What the hell does that mean?”

The voice was a little hesitant this time. “It means you are to lay down your arms and toss your purses and jewelry to me.” The voice broke on the last two words and squeaked up an octave.

I couldn’t help it. I began to laugh. Murdoch joined in.

“You mustn’t laugh!” the voice yelled at us. “This is serious.”

I was still laughing when a very young man was rudely pulled onto the street by Murdoch. The boy was probably fifteen, tall and slender with blonde hair rather too long for my taste. He was ragged and filthy, with no shoes and a multitude of scratches on his face. At least he had a sword.

I stopped laughing. This boy had attempted to rob the Queen of Vesla. I regarded him with a steely gaze. “And you are?” I asked.

The boy drew himself up with remarkable dignity. “I am Prince Andrew George Reginald William Benjamin Alexander Wicksberg, Prince of Tavnia and son of King Gerald III.”

I looked him over as he stood, ramrod straight, eyes fixed on the trash bins behind me. “A little down on your luck?”

His face was bright pink. “I was caught off guard by foul miscreants who stole my horse and shoes and left me to wander this horrid city alone. I managed to salvage my sword.”

He looked down at the ground, a picture of misery now. “I wouldn’t have hurt you, you know. I just need a horse and some things to get home.”

“Does your father know where you are?” I asked.

Murdoch spoke up. “You ought to help him, Your Majesty.”

The boy looked at me with a very cultured raised eyebrow. “You’re a queen?” he asked, skepticism dripping from his voice. Since I was dressed in black shirt and pants, covered with dirt, with a sword at my hip, he might have been a bit incredulous.

“Actually yes. I’m Regina I of Vesla.” I deliberately didn’t introduce Murdoch.

The kid stared at me. “Really? Uh, I mean…An honor to meet you, Your Majesty.” He bowed gracefully. I’m not sure he really believed me.

After we explained the situation and directed him to the castle, Andrew insisted on joining our tiny company. He wasn’t about to miss an opportunity to rescue a princess. He swore he was a trained swordsman, so we took in this stray and continued to the factory.

Dark clouds had rolled in from the sea to the East, obscuring the stars. A light sprinkle wet our faces as we negotiated trash-filled alleys. Thunder rumbled overhead. The sprinkle turned to a shower, which had hopes of becoming a deluge.

Murdoch was leading as we approached the last corner. The three of us lined up, heads poking around the soot stained brick. The ancient factory building was outlined against the dark sky. Part of it had collapsed. The rest was missing most of its windows, giving the appearance of empty eye sockets in a skull. There was no light inside. Also no signs reading ‘This way to the captive princess’.

A doorway, sans door, beckoned. We climbed the rock strewn slope to the building and peeked inside. It was dark. Very dark. Murdoch stood quietly with his eyes closed, listening and giving his sight a chance to adjust to the limited light. There was no sound except the dripping of water through leaks in the roof.

Murdoch waved his hand to the left and we headed down an aisle between rows of rusting and disintegrating machinery. They loomed like giant trolls to either side of us. I shuddered and almost ran into Murdoch when he stopped with his hand raised. He stood, turning his head, listening. I could hear something, too. A distant buzzing like bees in a hive. We headed in that direction.

Picking his way through the crumbling machines, Andrew banged his shin and almost, but not quite, throttled a curse. The buzzing noise grew louder, and eventually we could make out voices, several different ones, loud and angry.

Creeping along the aisle, we reached a wall. The voices came from the other side. Murdoch moved silently until he found a locked door. That was no problem for Murdoch. He had it open in less than a minute.

There was firelight on the other side, flickering around more deteriorating machinery. We slipped silently inside and squatted behind large engines. Words became audible.

“I say we slit her throat, dump her and get out of here.” said a harsh male voice.

I smothered a gasp.

A deep rumble agreed.

Then the distinctive twang of Elizabeth’s Waverly accent. “You will do nothing of the kind until I have taken the throne. She is far too valuable as a pawn.” Muffled cursing followed that comment, and I knew my daughter was alive and well, if gagged.

“But, Your Grace, she’s going to be a pain in the ass the whole time. She nearly gelded Grumpy here with that kick. She’d be so much nicer dead.”

I grinned, whispering. “That’s my girl.”

Murdoch indicated with hand signals that I should stay put. He and the Prince slid silently along the wall from shadow to shadow, disappearing into the gloom. I knelt beside some boxes and peeked into the room. There were at least twenty dwarfs, sitting around a small fire. The Duchess was at an old desk in one corner, wearing a deep purple and gold cloak. She was working on something I couldn’t see.

Snowy lay a few feet off, trussed up like a newly captured circus bear. She was gagged but seemed to be working on that; I could see her chewing on it. She was scanning the room when she focused on me. I grinned at her and gave a little finger wave. Her eyes widened and I thought she was going to choke on the gag.

Another voice spoke up. “If the King shows up with some of his guards, we’re dead. Especially if she talks. Me – I’m getting out of here now. But first I’m going to shut her up permanently.” A short, squat shadow rose from beside the fire and started moving toward Snowy.

The Duchess shrieked.

Almost simultaneously, Murdoch and Andrew jumped out from the darkness, swords flashing. I was a second behind. Three were down before they realized what was going on. Then I was too busy fighting for my life to see much else. Murdoch appeared and we fought back to back. One dwarf was throwing daggers, pulling them out of his baggy pants. One flew past my nose and I heard Murdoch grunt. I slipped my own dagger out, and the dwarf threw no more. From the corner of my eye, I saw another dwarf, moving toward Andrew’s back with a blade. My heart leaped to my throat and I screamed. But the small guy fell before he reached his target. Snowy had tripped him and now was beating him over the head with a wrench between her bound hands.

But there were too many of them. We were better swordsmen, but we weren’t going to win this fight.

I saw Andrew cut Snowy’s hands loose. He placed himself in front of her. Then I had three opponents and had no time for watching elsewhere.

It wasn’t until one of my opponents lost his head – literally – that I realized reinforcements had arrived. Looking up, I saw my husband, wearing a purple and gold cloak, taking on the other two attackers. He dispatched them quickly.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I gasped.

He just grinned, as he parried another attack. I moved to cover his back and the next few

minutes were a blur of swords and blood and fear.

Then it was over. Four of the dwarfs were still on their feet, but Reynard’s guards had them in hand. Elizabeth, however, seemed to have disappeared. Andrew had lifted Snow White up and placed her on a crate. He was carefully cutting off her bonds. I leaned against a motor and gasped for breath. Murdoch was breathing hard as well. He asked, “Are you all right?”

I choked out “Yes… Just…winded… Out…of…shape.”

He nodded. “Also, getting older.”

I glared. “Speak for yourself.” I said, as I tied my scarf around the wound on his arm.

Snowy was going all gooey eyed over Andrew, who was fascinated by the cleavage she was flaunting.

Reynard had disappeared as well. I stood and looked around, going to the corner where I had last seen the Duchess. A syringe with a noxious green liquid inside lay on the desk. There were several apples lying around.

I thought I could hear voices. I found a door leading into the ruined section of the building. Rain dripped from the sky and from the broken masonry. A light flashed to my left and I started in that direction. I could hear the voices more clearly now: Reynard and Elizabeth.

“You will obey me.” Elizabeth said in a voice, suffused with power.

Oh, my God, I thought. She’s a witch!

“You will eat the apple.” The voice repeated, a little more forcefully. “Eat the apple!”

I was maneuvering through the dark as fast as I could, scraping my legs on old motors. They were just up ahead. Dawn was breaking outside and I could just see them. Reynard was holding a bright red apple in his hand. Elizabeth stood twenty feet away, her right arm extended, handed curled with the index finger pointing at Reynard.

I screamed “No!”

Reynard glanced at me and tossed the apple over his shoulder.

Elizabeth shrieked in frustration and ran at him. I raced forward, but knew I wouldn’t reach them in time. A knife rose up in Elizabeth’s hand. As she attacked, a swirling of purple and gold enveloped Reynard. They came together and everything froze. For several long seconds they stood, face to face, gazes locked. Then Elizabeth staggered back, staring down at the hilt of Reynard’s sword sticking out of her chest. The knife dropped from her hand, clattering on the cement. She slid to the floor. Her eyes looked up into the rain for a moment, then stared into eternity.

I stopped and stared at my sweet, gentle husband, who had just dispatched an evil witch.

He smiled. “You didn’t really think I was going to eat that apple, did you?”

Snowy is still a teenager, and we still have memorable fights. But she is growing up. When she gives me sufficient information, she gets some privileges. I’m teaching her both armed and unarmed fighting, and she’s very good at both. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of Harold, Seymour’s son, but Andy has made several trips from Tavnia to visit. He spends almost all his time with Snow White. Reynard and I are happy to see love blossoming between the two. And it won’t hurt our relations with Tavnia a bit to join our two houses in marriage.

And as for me, I’m expecting our first child in a few months. Reynard is ecstatic. So is Snowy.

And so am I. I may name the baby Murdoch.

Your thoughts?