Casping peered out of the curtains hiding her in the carriage speeding down a gravel road. A guard on the seat beside her grunted and reached over to pull her back inside. With a sigh of grief and understanding, Casping sat back against the silk-covered seat. She hung her head and let the burning sensation behind her eyes ascend. She let her soft blond hair cover her pale, angelic face as she wept.
The carriage took a sharp turn, stopping her in the middle of a sob. She quickly reminded herself this was all for the best. She needed to stay hidden, and stay safe. Death was not an option; she needed to survive long enough to rule her parents' kingdom. If she did not hide, then surely her family's enemy, the powerful Rasha, would find and kill her. Casping knew she must accept her fate. Besides, her family must really love her to go to these measures of safety. Casping shivered as the cold winter wind blew open the curtains. She caught a glimpse of frost-covered trees and bushes and wondered what it would be like living in the middle of a deserted forest. At least she would have a cabin to live in and the two guards riding beside her to protect her.
Sighing, now out of boredom and impatience, Casping turned to ask the guard on her right how much longer it would be. Suddenly an arrow came flying through the curtains as they burst into flames. The arrow was on fire! It struck the guard in the chest and he immediately fell. Casping let out a terrified scream, jumping up in panic. She turned to find her left guard was already dead as well. She turned her wide silver eyes to the man who was leading the horses. He was slumped over in the seat, bleeding from a very recent wound.
Casping's heart seemed to stop, but her mind didn't. She jumped into the front seat and pushed the body out of the way with a muttered "sorry." She urged the horses into a full gallop. Racing down a slope, she could hear more arrows being shot towards her, and the orange flames just missing her. As the carriage suddenly erupted into flames, Casping knew she was done for. She saw her only chance of escape to her left. It was a forest, dark and mysterious. Everything seemed to slow down as she jumped out of the carriage. She rapidly undid the leather straps connecting the horses to the carriage and jumped atop the one who was the fastest, Kundra. The other horse ran in the opposite direction, towards the enemy. Casping cringed as she heard it let out a last whinny, but she didn't stop. She coaxed Kundra into a blinding run towards any ounce of safety the forest held and prayed they'd make it.
The moon was already up by the time Casping was sure she and Kundra were alone. The over-exercised horse's sides were heaving as he wheezed. Casping staggered off the sweaty black horse.
Tying up Kundra by his bridle, she murmured soft words, "There, there, good boy It'll be all right." Her once melodic voice was now oozing with mental pain and emptiness. Kundra whinnied hoarsely in reply. A strong wind began to blow, sending shivers to caress Casping. Clouds overhead were as dark and as thick smoke, and full of threatening snow. Only moments later, the promised snow began to glide down to earth. In an attempt to shield herself from winter's unforgiving embrace, Casping pulled her soft robe over her head. Kundra was sleeping by the time Casping had created a reasonably warm fire. She knew she could not cry, for the water might freeze her face even more. Instead, she lay down beside the fire and gratefully gave herself up to her dreams.
It must have been in the wee hours of the morning when Casping woke up. Something was wrong. She never woke up this early without a reason. Then the sound that had awakened her repeated. It was howling. The howl sounded like it was coming from one lonely wolf. "Calm down, Kundra. I won't let it hurt you," Casping whispered, trying to soothe the panicking horse. He bucked, then froze with wide, rolling eyes. "What is..." Casping began to ask, but a growl interrupted her from a few yards at least behind her. Kundra yanked on his bridle, cutting his mouth on the bit. Casping untied the reins, about to ride him out of the forest. But, with other intentions, Kundra sped off into the woods.
Casping heard the trample of hooves on the undergrowth and howling that was moving towards the trampling. Suddenly, a sickening whinny sounded across the forest to Casping, making her cringe. She wanted to run after Kundra, bring him back to safety, but feared what she would see. Fearful of the wolf's return, she built up another fire and fell into a freezing sleep.
Movement woke Casping. She opened her eyes in a confused daze. She couldn't feel her face! What was going on? Her fingers were stiff and felt frozen. Casping finally realized someone was carrying her. She looked into an unfamiliar face. He was handsome and young, only a few years older-looking than her. He looked down at her, concern in his sharp eyes. His eyes were odd. They were golden brown colors, but that wasn't the odd part. They didn't look... very human. After a few minutes, or so it seemed, Casping realized she was in a hut, and a very warm and cozy hut at that. She was placed on a soft blanket, one made of brown fur. The stranger had his back turned to her. She watched him weakly, feeling some warmth creeping around in her body. He turned around, watching her intently, almost studying her. She looked away and felt her eyes grow heavy. Before she knew what was going on, the stranger was putting some foul-tasting syrup into her mouth and making her swallow it. Everything was getting fuzzy because her vision was blurring. She could feel him watching her, though. She wanted to sit upright and yell at him to turn his eyes away, but all she could do was get a moan out of her mouth and then sleep overcame her.
Gasping awoke to find herself alone. Her head throbbed and her throat felt parched. She opened her eyes slowly, and then blinked a few times. Lying there for a moment, just looking up at the wooden ceiling, Casping tried sitting up. To her relief she found she could with almost no pain. She sat upright, taking in her surroundings. Once she felt sure she was alone and safe for now, she stood up on wobbly legs. She used the only table in the large hut to help keep her balance. A loud creaking sound erupted behind her. She turned around almost too fast to find that unfamiliar stranger facing her. He looked surprised as if he didn't assume she would wake up. Over his shoulder was a leather bag stuffed with furry animals Casping could not make out.
Casping reached for her pocket, only now remembering she had a sheathed knife at her side. Only then did she realize it was missing. She looked around frantically in case she had dropped it. Seeing it was nowhere within sight, Casping turned on the stranger while looking for any other ways to escape besides the door which he blocked. There was none.
"Whoa, calm down. Why would I save you just to hurt you?" the stranger asked, obviously taking in Casping's protective stance.
Casping didn't reply immediately. After studying her "savior," she straightened up to look more like the princess she was. "I am Princess Casping," she replied with a confident voice and shaking hands. "I demand to know who you are and where I am... and why I am here." She crossed her arms to show she meant business.
"First of all, I answer to no one's demands; I am not a servant for the royal household. I will tell you my name, and not because you asked, but because I was planning to tell you anyway. I am Troyce. To answer your next question, I would expect it is obvious you are in the forest on the edge of your kingdom." Troyce paused here to close the door as a cold wind came towards the hut. He turned around again to answer the last question. "As to why you were in the forest in the first place, I haven't a clue. But, I brought you here because you were going to freeze. Plus, you no longer... had means of transportation," he concluded with a sly grin that made Casping want to ask a hundred more questions.
It took a few minutes for Casping to register all of this information. "So, you're saying that you saved me from certain death?" she asked, raising her eyebrows like it was hard to believe.
Troyce only nodded to confirm it. "So, what brings a princess to the forest?" Troyce asked, walking towards Casping and dumping his bag onto the table. "I mean, wouldn't you prefer to sleep in your bedchamber or whatever it is you have...?" he asked, busying himself with unloading the bag.
"For your information, Troyce, I was chased into the forest. By Rasha's men, assuming you know who he is," Casping said, wondering why she felt the need to put scorn in her voice.
Troyce visibly stiffened, and then quickly regained control of his emotions and busied himself again with the bag. "I've heard of him... we all have."
"My kind, you know? My family, my friends... my pack," Troyce spoke softly.
"Did you say pack?" Casping questioned with rising frustration resulting from confusion.
"Yeah. It's kind of a long story. You see, well, my pack and I used to live in your kingdom. On Rasha's land to be exact. He didn't like the thought of having 'fantastical' creatures on his land. So he..."
"Whoa, fantastical creatures?" Casping interrupted.
Troyce went on as if she hadn't said a word, "...banished us from your kingdom. It's not like he had the right to, but he certainly had enough soldiers to push us off. Even in our other forms we were no match for them," Troyce concluded with a distant look on his face.
"Hold it just one second. What exactly are you if you aren't human?" Casping asked, backing up a little.
"We're werewolves. Not exactly the correct word, but one that'll do us justice I suppose," Troyce stated so calmly like everyone should know werewolves existed.
Casping stood silently, mouth wide open. Then she burst out laughing. "Thanks, I really needed some humor right now," she said, wiping the back of her hand over her eyes.
Troyce turned to glare at her. "I'm not joking. Perhaps nowadays people need to see to believe." He gave a weary sigh and then his entire body seemed to shimmer and sparkle. Casping watched in mystified horror. Suddenly a blond wolf nearly twice her size was staring back at her with human-like eyes. It growled, causing a shudder to run over Casping. She realized she could run, she could scream, she could try to kill the wolf. But she didn't. She just stood gaping at it, unable to wrench away from Troyce's gaze. Her eyes began to hurt from staring so long and she blinked. When she opened her eyes a second later, Troyce stood beside her as if he had never changed. "See?" he said simply and returned to shuffling the furry animals in the bag. Casping could only watch Troyce in a dreamlike fashion. For some reason, she found it was not hard to believe what Troyce said. Of course she had to believe he was a werewolf, she had just seen it.
"So... you hate Rasha, too?" she asked, wondering if perhaps she had just found a powerful ally for her parents.
"Of course! How could we not? They stole what had been rightfully ours for thousands of centuries! But we daren't show our faces to him, at least not on our own. We'll be shot down before we can change into our fanged form," Troyce paused and held his breath, as if remembering a painful memory.
"Well... why don't you all partner up with my parents' army? Then Rasha would be no match for us!" Casping exclaimed, eyes lighting up with excited hope. "Wait, how many of your kind are there?" she questioned, seeing that a small number of them would not add much to their army.
"Well, in this forest there are... umm, let's see," he paused for a moment to calculate, "probably a couple hundred, maybe a thousand, and within your kingdom, probably a few more thousand. Also, many packs moved farther north."
Casping jumped up and down like a little girl with a new toy. "Oh, Troyce, don't you see?!" she cried out. "We could come together and rid ourselves of Rasha and his men once and for all! You could gather all the packs up and join the army!"
Troyce stared at her for a moment like she was crazy. Then he smiled faintly and a sly look crossed through his eyes. "Give me a week."
He spoke in a slick voice that made Gasping tremble from anticipation of their plan. She knew deep down she had found the answer to her kingdom's prayers. And another soft feeling in her heart told her she had found what she had been seeking all her life, even if she hadn't known it. She was in love with Troyce, but she didn't realize it. Not yet.