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Aneira and the Seven Gnomes, Part Two


Marsican’s frightened face, surrounded by the worried faces of the gnomes, was the first thing Aneira saw when she woke. Her sides ached horribly, and the world around her seemed to spin when Maude helped her sit up.

“What happened?” she asked.

“We’re not sure,” Marsican said. “I found you here with an apron on, tied so tightly you weren’t breathing.” He lowered his head. “I couldn’t get it off with my claws, so I had to run and get the others.”

Punt handed her a cup of cold water from the well. She drank it slowly.

The apron lay in a charred mess beside her on the porch, and Rust sat next to it, bandages on his hands. He gave her an embarrassed shrug. “It started burning when I untied it.” He must have noticed her concern. “It doesn’t hurt that badly.”

Aneira shuddered. “There was a woman selling things. She gave me the apron as a gift, but when she tied it, I couldn’t breathe.”

Angus looked darkly at the remains of the apron. “There’s evil here, and no mistake. Best to take that far away and burn it. Who knows what dark magic may be connected to it.”

The gnomes all watched her with tense faces. Jib blinked behind his thick spectacles. Mibbs looked like he might be sick. Even little Glimmer came out and nestled against Aneira, meowing in concern.

“Do you think you can stand?” Marsican asked, his eyes fixed on Aneira’s.

“I think so,” she said.

With a little help, she made it inside. The sight of her unfinished cookie dough brought her to tears. “I was going to surprise you.”

“Never you mind,” Tell said. “We’re just glad you’re all right.”

“Straight to bed,” Maude commanded. “I’ll bring you some tea.” She eyed Aneira sternly. “And once you’ve rested, I think it’s time you tell us the rest of your story.”

***

That night, Aneira told them everything. They all listened quietly as she shared her tale.

When she had finished, they looked around the room at one another. No one spoke until Angus cleared his throat. “Your highness, it has been an honor to have you here, though a week ago I would have sent you as far away from us as I could.”

“I know,” Aneira said sadly. “My grandfather was so angry and frightened by the actions of one gnome, he lashed out against all of you unfairly. If you want me to leave, I understand.”

The gnomes looked at one another again, and Maude nodded at Angus as if to prod him on.

“The thing is, your highness—” he started.

“Oh, please call me Aneira. No titles.”

“Aneira,” he continued, “it’s our family that caused all the trouble in the first place. Our father, in fact.”

She stared at Angus.

He nodded. “Our father was your grandfather’s betrayer.” Tears swam in his eyes. “His legacy has been our shame all these years.”

“Which is why,” Maude cut in fiercely, “we’re so very glad we took you in. Perhaps it can in some way make up for his evil.”

Punt squeezed his hands together. “Father was happy for a while, but after our mother died, he was never the same. He became obsessed with wealth. Darkness consumed him more and more each day.”

“It started small,” Tell said. “An unscrupulous business dealing here, a few stolen jewels there. But things were worst when a stranger came to town.”

Jib nodded. “He never gave Father his real name, but he promised him unimaginable wealth and power in return for a simple job. Some petty theft and a single curse. A simple enchantment even a gnome could learn.”

“He agreed,” Tell said. “And for a time, he had more wealth than he could ever ask for. But it only led to his ruin.”

Grandmother Eira had never gone into great detail on how the curse was broken, but Aneira knew it involved the wicked gnome’s death. “I’m so sorry,” she said.

“After our father died,” Angus continued, “the stranger found us and tried to recruit us in our father’s place, but we refused. We never heard from him again.”

Maude shuddered. “And good riddance. He was handsome and charming, but so cold. I’d sooner trust a viper.”

“So, now that you know our true history, we understand if you want nothing to do with us,” Angus said sadly.

“Nonsense.” Aneira wiped her eyes. “Your family may have caused mine pain, but mine has been no better in return. And you’ve all been so kind. I think it’s high time we were all judged by our own merits or failings, not those of our family members.” She took Angus by the hand and looked around the room at all of them. “When I am queen, I promise to revoke the banishment of all gnomes.”

They all stared at her in disbelief. Maude started to cry.

“If you’ll allow me, Princess,” Marsican cut in gently, “for now it’s most important to make sure you live until you become queen. It’s obvious that the queen has discovered your whereabouts. We need to know how and keep her from causing any more harm. If our hosts are willing to let you stay, I’ll travel back to the castle and discover what I can of her plans. I know a few sparrows who might be able to help me.” As a bear, Marsican could understand other animals, something that had proven useful many times in the past.

“She can stay as long as she needs,” Tell said. “But perhaps one of us should go with you.”

Marsican shook his head. “It would be too dangerous if you were caught. The punishment for a gnome crossing over the border is imprisonment. Perhaps even torture and death with Queen Brenna in charge. And I can move faster on my own.”

“Very well.” Angus nodded. “If her highness agrees, we’ll abide by her wishes.”

“Aneira, not ‘her highness,” Aneira reminded him, squeezing his hand. She let go and sighed. “I hate the idea of you going back, Marsican, but it seems our best option.” She stood up and wrapped her arms around his shaggy neck. “Just please be careful, my friend. I’d hate to think what she’d do to you if you were caught.”

“Of course,” he said, leaning his head against hers. “I’ll be back by sundown tomorrow.”

He set off at once. Aneira watched him go, her stomach knotting. Sundown tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough.

***

The gnomes all stayed home that day. Aneira hated that they were missing another day of mining, but she couldn’t convince them to go. So instead, she helped around the house and embroidered flowers on everything in the mending pile when she ran out of chores.

Still, she couldn’t stop thinking of Marsican. With a sigh, she threw a freshly embroidered sock on the pile, startling Mibbs, who was sitting next to her.

Maude gave her a sympathetic look. “Marsican will be careful, dear one.”

Aneira stabbed the chair cushion with her needle. “I’m just so tired of all of this. I thought life would be a beautiful story, not the horrid, wretched mess it’s been.”

“Life isn’t always what we’d like it to be,” Maude agreed. “I suppose it’s a bit like your embroidery.” She picked up the sock and turned it inside out. “On the underside, it doesn’t make much sense, just a mess of tangles. But on the topside, it’s beautiful. The tangles all have a purpose.” She touched Aneira’s shoulder. “Life is full of problems and pain. We both know that.” Her eyes were full of compassion. “It’s what we do with the mess that determines whether we end up with beauty or bitterness.”

Aneira fought back tears. “Mother would have said something like that.”

Maude hugged her. “I’m sorry, lass. I lost my mother when I was young, and it was a horrible burden. But how proud your mother would be of who you’ve become!” She wiped her eyes. “Now, enough of that. I’m going to comb your hair and sing to you like my mother used to do for me. Mibbs, will you get my comb?”

Mibbs blinked, shook himself, and nodded, hurrying from the room.

Once he’d returned and given the comb to Maude, he turned to Aneira. “Did you really mean what you said about lifting the banishment?”

“Of course!”

He swallowed and looked down at his feet. “I’ll go see if Jib needs me to take a turn keeping watch.”

“Very well,” said Maude, already starting to comb through Aneira’s thick hair.

Mibbs headed for the door without another word.

Maude frowned. “He’s been acting odd ever since we found you yesterday.”

A loud noise from outside made them both jump. The comb scraped the side of Aneira’s scalp.

And the world went dark.

***

Once again, Aneira woke surrounded by frightened faces, including Marsican’s. She realized that meant it was already evening.

Somewhere in the background, Maude sobbed.

“What … happened?” Aneira asked. Her head felt heavy.

Anger flashed in Marsican’s eyes. “A poisoned comb.”

“I swear on my life, Aneira, I didn’t know!” Maude wailed.

Aneira reached out for her. “I believe you.”

“I’ll keep watch over her tonight,” Marsican said. “Are there any objections?” He glared around at the gnomes as if daring them to contradict him.

No one said a word.

Once everyone had gone to bed, Marsican whispered, “We need to leave once you’ve had time to rest. You’re not safe here.”

Aneira’s heart froze.

“The peddler was Queen Brenna in disguise.”

Aneira stared. “She looked nothing like her. She wasn’t even the same height!”

“The mirror has given her powers of illusion and disguise.” His face tensed. “The sparrows have been watching and had much to share. Every day, she speaks to her mirror, and it reveals things to her. It’s how she discovered the huntsman’s betrayal and, most likely, how she found you. The sparrows don’t know where the mirror came from, but they know it’s a thing of deep evil that grows more powerful when used by a heart open to darkness.”

Marsican’s voice became a growl. “When the huntsman was imprisoned, he tried to send a sparrow to warn me, but it was shot down by a guard. Then more sparrows were suspected of betrayal and killed. The others were too frightened to try to find us.” He shook his head. “The queen has lost all reason. We must leave as soon as you feel ready to travel.”

“But she thinks I’m dead.”

“The mirror will betray us again. And even if I wasn’t sure of that, the poisoned comb confirms that you’re still in danger, most likely from one of the gnomes.”

“Surely not!”

“The queen never left the castle yesterday. There’s no other explanation.”

“Perhaps someone else slipped into the cottage and poisoned the comb when we weren’t looking.”

“Unlikely.” Marsican shook his head again. “The most believable explanation is that one of them is a traitor.”

Aneira shivered. She couldn’t believe it. But nothing else seemed to make sense.

***

They left in the dark gray of early morning, stopping only long enough for Aneira to pick a few of her favorite apples from Rust’s tree for the journey. She hoped he would forgive her for taking them. Some bread or cheese would have been helpful as well, but she refused to take anything more than necessary from them. They had already given her so much. And, of course, it was best to leave without waking anyone. Searching the kitchen for food would have made that difficult.

Aneira’s heart felt like lead in her chest. She hated leaving the gnomes without saying goodbye, without thanking them for everything they’d done. She didn’t want to believe that any of them had betrayed her, but doubt clouded her mind. She’d only known them for one week. What if she was wrong?

Her stomach rumbled, and she took one of the apples from the folds of her skirt and bit into it, chewing it slowly and trying to push aside her troubled thoughts.

Marsican stopped suddenly, sniffing the air. “Someone is here,” he growled.

Aneira swallowed before responding, but the moment she did, her throat tightened and squeezed painfully. She gasped and clutched it, trying to breathe.

“Princess?” Marsican turned to her. “Aneira?” His voice was frantic.

She slid to the ground, still clawing at her throat, straining for air that would not come.

From the hazy shadows of the trees, a dark form emerged. Even in her panic, Aneira recognized her.

Queen Brenna.

Marsican stepped between Aneira and the queen and bared his teeth. “What have you done?”

Brenna fixed her gaze on Aneira with an eerily convincing sympathetic smile. “How’s the apple, your highness?” The term of reverence dripped with sarcasm.

Aneira’s vision blurred.

And for the third time that week, the world went black.

***

Aneira woke in the forest, but it seemed different. Brighter. Warmer. A man with kind eyes and a golden crown stood before her.

The Unseen Prince. Somehow, she knew.

“How can I see you? Am I … dead?”

He smiled. “No, Aneira.”

She stared. “You know my name?”

“I’ve known you all your life.”

She clenched her fists. “A lot of good that’s done me.”

He didn’t get angry, but stood there, silent, watching her. Then he spoke in a quiet voice. “You see only the pain of your life.”

Heat burned her cheeks. “My life has been nothing but pain. Pain YOU allowed, if what I’ve been taught is true.” Her lifelong question escaped as a choked sob. “Why?”

His eyes met hers, and the sympathy reflected there caught her by surprise. “I don’t have easy answers. But without your hardships, big and small, from losing your parents to the storm I sent that second night in the forest, you would never have seen gnomes as people, not ideas, and realized that things had to change.” The gentleness of his tone softened her. “Everything you’ve suffered is shaping you into the queen you’ll become. Someone who has gone through their own suffering better understands the suffering of others.”

Something in his expression made her wonder what he had suffered.

“Your life will tangle when you try to embroider it yourself, but it can be beautiful if you allow me to guide the threads.” He held out a thick, red thread and placed it in her hand. “There is so much more for you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Is this a magical thread or something?”

He chuckled. “No, just a reminder.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve been talking to Maude?”

“A smart woman, Maude,” he said. Avoiding a direct answer, she noticed.

Then he grew serious. “It’s time for you to go back. It won’t be easy. But when love guides your actions and you trust me, there is always hope. Don’t be afraid.”

He grew brighter, melding with the rising sun. Her throat began to ache.

She tucked the thread into her pocket. “Not saying I will, but what if I decide I want to find you again?” Her words rasped painfully.

He was so bright now she couldn’t look at him. “You need only call me. I’ve always been there, Aneira, and I always will be.”

***

With a slow, groggy sense of awareness, Aneira realized she was back from her dream, or whatever it had been. She couldn’t open her eyes. Her throat screamed for air, but she couldn’t make a sound or breathe.

“Give me the antidote.” Marsican’s growl had become a cry. “Please. You can have me instead.”

“There is no antidote,” Brenna’s voice was ice cold. “Though as slippery as this one has been, I’m taking no chances.”

As consciousness slipped away again, Aneira heard the sound of metal, like a sword or dagger unsheathed.

“No!” Marsican roared.

Brenna shrieked, then laughed as Marsican’s voice went eerily quiet. “Well then, I guess I’ll take you both.”

Marsican. Aneira tried to say his name, but her mouth wouldn’t work.

And then, the apple piece dislodged itself. Blessed, heavenly breath returned to her lungs. She gasped, then choked as the apple came back up. Climbing to her knees, she spat it on the ground. She took in her surroundings. Queen Brenna stood before her, a dagger raised in one hand. Blood dripped from its point.

Aneira turned. Her friend lay on his side, his breath coming in ragged gasps. Her stomach squeezed, but before she could rush to him, Brenna grasped her arm and stared.

“How did …” She stopped, her confusion melting into rage as she plunged the dagger toward Aneira’s chest.

Aneira thrust her hands up instinctively and grabbed Queen Brenna’s arms. Hatred boiled in the queen’s eyes, making Aneira shudder. The queen was surprisingly strong, and Aneira was weak from the apple. Poisoned, she assumed.

The dagger inched closer to her bodice, and a vicious smile stretched over Brenna’s face. “You’re mine, princess.”

Marsican wheezed and crawled slowly toward them. The sight of him filled Aneira with a surge of strength. Brenna couldn’t have her, because he would be next. “Not today,” she said through clenched teeth. With every last bit of energy she had, she surged forward. Brenna stumbled and fell. The dagger dropped to the forest floor.

Before the queen could move, Aneira sprawled on top of her, pinned her arms to the ground, and screamed for the gnomes.

Holding Brenna down, Aneira managed to reach the dagger and fling it into the trees.

At last, the gnomes stumbled into the clearing, still half asleep and clutching makeshift weapons.

“Help me!” Aneira said.

Jib, Rust, and Tell rushed over and grabbed the queen’s flailing arms and legs.

“I’ll get some rope!” Punt ran toward the cottage.

Maude knelt by Marsican.

“Is he all right?” Aneira asked.

Maude’s face tensed. “He’s bleeding. I’ll see what I can do.” She gave Angus instructions Aneira couldn’t hear and sent him back just as Punt returned with the rope. Soon, Brenna was bound by the wrists.

“Take her to the stable,” Aneira ordered. “Then bind her ankles and watch her. I’ll question her later.” She had to get to Marsican.

“This is treason!” Brenna protested.

Aneira stood and glared up at her stepmother. “Attempted murder of the crown princess is treason. I doubt many of our subjects will disagree.”

Brenna’s face paled a little, but she stuck out her chin. “It’s my word against yours.”

Punt yanked at her ropes. “And ours.”

She laughed. “No one will trust the word of a gnome.”

“Enough!” Aneira snapped. “Don’t speak of them that way.” She looked at Punt and Jib. “Take her. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

They nodded. “Come on, you,” Jib said gruffly, tugging at her arms. Tell and Rust followed them.

The queen protested. Aneira ignored her and turned to Marsican.

She ran to his side just in time to catch Maude’s sorrowful look. “I’m … I’m sorry, Aneira. He’s gone.”

Aneira dropped to her knees. Numbness washed over her. He couldn’t be dead. But he lay still and unmoving.

“It was just a dagger,” she said. Tears blinded her.

“It must have been enchanted or poisoned,” Maude said softly. “It wasn’t a large wound.”

Aneira leaned over Marsican and buried her face in his fur. “Please don’t take him. I need him. Take me if you need to take someone. But not him.”

Then she kissed his shaggy head and sobbed.

***

Marsican stirred beneath her.

Aneira sat up and stared. Marsican was gone. A boy around her age lay there instead.

He sat up too, his eyes wide, but then sucked in a breath and held his stomach.

“Wait!” Maude said. “You’re still bleeding. Angus?”

Angus rushed over with a bundle in his hands.

The boy let out a groan.

“Back down you go,” Maude commanded. “Aneira, can you hold him steady for me?”

She shook herself. “Of course.” She pulled his head into her lap.

He looked up at her. “Are you—?”

“I’m fine,” she interrupted. “You look … different.”

He closed his eyes and winced as Maude’s needle did its work. “A curse. My grandfather was cursed when your grandfather was. They were friends.”

“You’ve been cursed this whole time?”

“Because of grandfather, yes. You must have broken the spell. An act of sacrifice would do it.”

“I asked the Unseen Prince to take me instead of you.”

“He must have known you meant it.”

“But I’m still here.”

“He must have chosen to save both of us.”

“So why are you still bleeding?”

“Enchanted knives still make holes,” Maude said dryly.

Aneira’s head spun. “I have so many questions.”

Boy Marsican sucked in a breath through his teeth. “I don’t suppose we could save them for later?” He gripped his shirt until his knuckles turned white.

“Of course,” Aneira assured him. Convenient that he’d transformed with clothing. Her cheeks warmed. Best not to dwell there.

Angus looked down at Marsican with sad eyes. “It appears we owe an apology to more than just Aneira.” He looked puzzled. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“No apology needed,” Marsican squeezed out between his teeth.

“Almost done, love,” Maude reassured him. “You’re doing beautifully.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Marsican took a small breath. “Because I couldn’t. Part of the curse.”

“No more questions, now,” Maude said. “They’ll be time for that later.”

Aneira stared down at the new Marsican, noticing his hair was the same color as bear Marsican’s fur. She chewed her bottom lip to keep words from escaping. How was he around her age? Didn’t bears age differently? Why had her grandfather’s curse been broken and not his grandfather’s? HE’D BEEN A BOY THIS WHOLE TIME?

***

Marsican made it back to the cottage with some help from Aneira. Whatever enchantment had taken his life was gone, but his stitches would need time to heal. Maude spread out blankets for him on the cottage floor while Angus brewed some tea with soothing herbs gathered from the forest. Before long, Marsican fell asleep.

Aneira wanted answers, but for now, Marsican needed to rest and she needed to face the queen. Bracing herself, she walked out to the stable.

Brenna glared at her as she came in. She stood tall in spite of her bound wrists and ankles, her chin raised defiantly. Jib, Rust, Punt, and Tell stood guard around her.

Aneira’s stomach tied in knots at the vicious expression on her stepmother’s face. She balled her fists and stuffed them into her pockets. She felt like a twelve-year-old little girl again, helpless and alone.

Something was in her pocket. She pulled it out. A red thread. She stared at it.

It hadn’t been a dream.

Aneira stood a little straighter. She wasn’t a child anymore, and she wasn’t alone. She never had been. She could do this.

Before she could speak, Brenna broke the silence. “Come to kill me, little princess?” Behind her bravado, a hint of fear shone in her eyes.

Aneira kept her voice calm. “No, stepmother. But this has to end. As soon as we can prepare, you and I will travel back to the castle with my friends.” She nodded toward the gnomes, deciding it was best to keep Marsican’s survival a secret. “You’ll be stripped of your position and stand trial for your crimes.”

Brenna laughed. “You think you can wrap things up in a neat bow like that? My followers far outnumber yours, and you don’t come of age for another two years.”

Aneira clamped her jaw shut and forced herself to stay calm.

The queen shrugged. “But, by all means, yes. Let’s return to the castle, if you think you and your little band can keep hold of me for that long a journey.” She looked around, and mock confusion filled her face. “You do seem to be short a member, though, don’t you?”

Aneira frowned, her gaze flickering over the gnomes. They looked at each other.

She thought over the morning. And then it hit her.

Mibbs. Where was Mibbs?

***

While two of them stood guard, the others searched the cottage, the forest, and even the salt mines, but there was no sign of him. Glimmer and some of Mibbs’ belongings were missing. Then Maude came out of his room holding a parchment.

“It’s from Mibbs,” she said dully. She handed it to Aneira, who read it.

I can’t stay. Not after what I’ve done. Beware the queen. Her promises are lies, and she has eyes everywhere. Now that Aneira is dead, she’ll come for all of us. Run. Hide. Do whatever you must. Don’t eat the apples. And throw away Maude’s combs. ~Mibbs

Looking green in the face, Rust rushed to the garden and tore all the apples from the tree, tossing them in the burn pile. Then he grabbed an ax. “Not taking any chances,” he said.

Tears spilled onto Maude’s cheeks. “How did I not see it?”

Aneira hugged her. “I only knew Mibbs a little while, but he wasn’t a killer. I’ll talk to talk to the queen again.”

Brenna wore a satisfied smirk when Aneira returned to the stables. “Did you find him?”

“Stop the games, Stepmother. I don’t believe it. Mibbs wouldn’t try to poison me unless he felt he had no choice.”

The queen shrugged. “You never truly know the hearts of others.”

Aneira frowned. “What did you offer him?”

“What does it matter? He’s long gone by now, little coward.”

This was getting nowhere. “We leave for the castle in an hour.”

“If you think that wise.” Something intense burned beneath her flippant comment.

Aneira swallowed. “Why do you hate me so much?”

“Does one need a reason to hate a spoiled child?”

Aneira shook her head. “No. This goes deeper than that. It has to.”

Brenna’s eyes burned. “Look at you, standing there, so noble, so pure, thinking you’re so above me. With a grandfather like yours.” She spat at Aneira’s feet.

Aneira backed away. “My grandfather had his faults, but—”

The queen barked a bitter laugh. “Faults?” With a sweeping motion, she waved her bound hands over the left side of her face.

Aneira gasped as Brenna’s flawless skin melted into five deep scars from the top of her head to the tip of her chin. Her eyes, two shards of blue glass, stared as if daring Aneira to say something.

“What’s the matter? You don’t like my true form? You have your grandfather to thank for it.”

A wave of nausea hit Aneira’s stomach. “What happened?”

“My father was mauled by a bear in the forest when I was sixteen.” Brenna said bitterly. “I went to the castle to beg the king for help. He refused to act, stating bears had immunity in Arthdodd.”

She jutted out her chin. “I decided to avenge him myself. It didn’t go well. When I’d recovered, I found the world only saw my scars.” She waved her hands again, and her flawless skin returned. “But then I met someone who promised to help me never be hurt again. He gave me my mirror and taught me my enchantments, and I made my plans.”

Her voice held no regret. “Your grandparents were easy to dispatch. Your mother saved me trouble by dying on her own. Then it was just a matter of convincing your father he was in love with me and waiting for an opportunity. When he got sick, the rest was easy.” She eyed Aneira. “You’ve been the one to give me the most trouble.”

Aneira trembled. How did one fight such hatred?

Then she thought of the Unseen Prince’s words. Let love guide your actions.

She imagined Brenna as a frightened girl, just her age, and compassion filled her. “I’m so sorry.” She stepped forward and touched Brenna’s cheek where the scars had been. “This never should have happened to you.”

The queen trembled but didn’t pull away.

“When I am queen, everyone-bear, gnome, human-will be judged individually for their own faults or merits, nothing more and nothing less.”

At the word “queen,” Brenna’s expression hardened.

“Aneira—” Jib warned.

With a quick movement, Brenna grabbed the rope tied to her wrists and wrapped it around Aneira’s neck.

Aneira gasped and clutched at the rope. Around her, the gnomes shouted and tried to free her.

Then a shape bumped into her. Brenna shrieked. The rope went slack. Aneira fell to the stable floor and coughed as her air returned.

Brenna landed facing her. Her scars slowly reappeared as her eyes went dim.

Mibbs stood over her, shaking, a dagger in his hand.

Punt knelt next to her. “Are you all right?”

“I think so,” Aneira said. Then she covered her face and sobbed.

***

After the excitement and trauma of the morning, everyone decided taking a day to rest was better than setting off for Arthdodd immediately. Aneira took a hot bath, had a warm meal, and slept for most of the day. Marsican was at her side the moment she woke, his expression full of concern.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there, Aneira.” He held up his hands and looked at them scornfully. “I knew transforming, if it ever happened, would have its challenges. I never thought about not being able to protect you.” He grimaced. “I don’t know if I can even talk to animals anymore. What good am I?”

“None of that,” Aneira said. “I’ll admit it’s going to take some adjustment, but I’m so glad you’re alive, bear or boy, I don’t even care. And Mibbs was there.” She shook her head. “Who knew he’d be the hero of the story?”

“Are you all right? Truly?” Marsican asked, watching her carefully.

She sighed. “Honestly, I don’t know. I’ll have to be eventually, I suppose. But I imagine, like everything else, it’ll take some time.” She looked up at him. “So, you said your grandfather and mine were friends?”

“Yes, and cursed at the same time. But while your grandfather looked for ways to reverse his curse, mine grew bitter and disappeared into the forest. My whole family had given up hope that the curse would ever be broken. But your grandmother believed that together, you and I could break it.” He smiled. “I suppose she was right.”

“So, is that why my grandfather gave bears such respect and protection?”

Marsican nodded. “He was trying to protect his friend.”

“It’s so much to take in. And I have a lot of damage to undo in the kingdom because of Grandfather.”

Marsican reached over hesitantly and squeezed her hand. “Well, like you said, it will take some time. But you’ll figure it out, I’m sure.”

Aneira looked down at his hand on hers.

He flushed and pulled his hand away.

That night, curled up around the cottage fireplace with tea and cocoa, everyone listened as Mibbs shared his tale.

“The offer was gold enough to last me a lifetime and a return to Arthdodd for all of us if I would help the queen poison Aneira,” he said.

He looked at his family. “I didn’t want to, but she said she’d imprison all of you if I didn’t help, and that she’d watch me in her mirror and know if I’d betrayed her.” He shuddered. “So I did what I thought I had to do. I’m sorry.”

The other gnomes gave Aneira furtive glances.

Aneira took Mibbs’ hand in hers. “What you did was horrible,” she said, “but I understand why you did it. And you also saved my life. I forgive you and grant you pardon.”

Mibbs’ eyes filled with tears. A collective sigh went up around the room.

“As to the future, I won’t be queen for another two years, but until then, I can temporarily rule with a team of counselors. Three will be appointed by the people, but I can choose two of my own.” She turned to Marsican. “I’d like you to be one of them.”

Marsican looked pleased. “Of course.”

“Angus,” Aneira said, turning to him. “Would you serve on my counsel as well? Your insight and knowledge of gnome history will be crucial as we bring the gnomes back to Arthdodd.”

Angus’ face lit up. “I’d be honored.”

“There will be plenty of damage to undo in the kingdom between Brenna’s reign and some of my grandfather’s past decisions,” Aneira said. “Not to mention whether the man who gave Brenna her power is still a threat or not.”

“I worry he may be the same one who led Father astray,” Punt said.

“But I’m confident that together, and with time,” Aneira glanced at Marsican and smiled, “we can restore Arthdodd to the kingdom it should be.”

Mibbs cleared his throat. “Speaking of your grandfather, I may have news.” He pulled a parchment out of his pocket.

Aneira took it from him with shaking hands.

“When I worked with the queen, I heard rumors of a prison north of here and decided to investigate. My source believes the queen kept them alive to blackmail you later. I’d like to lead an expedition to find them.”

She skimmed over the page, her heart pounding more with each word. “Yes! But only after we go back to the castle, so I can send some guards to go with you.”

Mibbs nodded.

Conversation swirled around her, but Aneira couldn’t concentrate.

Her grandparents might be alive.

***

The next morning, Aneira set off for the castle with everyone but Jib and Maude, who stayed behind to watch over the queen’s body and wait for the soldiers Aneira would send. Though some of the guards were still loyal to Brenna, enough of them still held true allegiance to Aneira to outnumber them. A group was sent to the gnomes to retrieve the queen’s body. The following week, a quiet funeral was held, and Aneira’s new counsel was selected.

Mibbs and his group of soldiers left for the north to search for Aneira’s grandparents. She wavered between fear and hope. And as excited as she was at the possibility of their return, she wasn’t looking forward to the conversations she and her grandfather would have. Things had to change. She hoped he would see it, too.

On the same day Mibbs left, Aneira commanded that Brenna’s mirror be taken outside the castle and burned, along with all of her other possessions. Much like Rust and his apple tree, Aneira didn’t want to take any chances.

Later, Marsican and Aneira took a walk around the orchard.

“How are you holding up?”

“All right, I think.” Aneira plucked a leaf from a tree and looked up at the fruit. “I don’t think I’ll eat apples any time soon, though.”

He chuckled. “I doubt anyone will blame you for that.”

“Poor stepmother,” Aneira said.

Marsican lifted a brow. “’Poor’ stepmother? She tried to kill you. Four times.”

“I know. And she made my life miserable. But knowing her story, I can’t help pitying her. For just a moment, I think I saw who she could have been. Had she reached for love instead of hate, had grandfather been more compassionate, had she turned to someone other than her mentor …”

“Like the Unseen Prince?”

“Maybe.” She wasn’t sure whether she was ready to follow him, especially since his advice had nearly gotten her killed. But he’d saved Marsican. She shook her head. It was too much to think about. “I can’t change the past. All I can do is try to change the future. To remember that actions have consequences, sometimes unintended, long-lasting ones. And that everyone deserves a chance to be judged for their own mistakes or merits.”

“That’s why you’ll make such an excellent queen.” Marsican smiled. It was a nice smile, a little crooked on one side. She tried to see her bear friend hidden somewhere in his face.

He noticed her watching him. “What?”

She laughed a little nervously. “I’m just still getting used to you as … not a bear.”

His laugh sounded even more nervous than hers. He rubbed the back of his head. “I know we’re both young, and I’m new to being human. But do you think …” He hesitated. “Do you think someday, you might see me as more than just your friend?”

Heat warmed Aneira’s cheeks. “I don’t know.”

He held up a hand. “If all I ever am is a friend, I’ll be content with that.” He took in a deep breath. “But maybe, someday, if we find we might be something else…” He stopped again and cleared his throat awkwardly.

She looked over at this sweet, shy boy, a boy she’d known as a bear all her life. A boy who’d given his life for hers. A boy who had only ever shown her kindness and love.

She took his hand. “I want to just focus on our friendship for now,” she said gently. “There’s so much I have to learn about being queen, and so much you have to learn about being human. But I’m open to the idea that someday, things could be different.”

His smile lit up his entire face.

“Wonderful,” he said, letting out half a laugh. Aneira let go of his hand. He scratched his ear in a gesture that looked almost bear-like. “Well, I should get to those reports on the new trade route to Dunmar.” He turned and fled.

Aneira held back her own laugh. The next few years would be interesting, to say the least.

On an impulse, she raced from the orchard to one of the turrets of the castle. When she’d reach the top, she looked out over her beautiful Arthdodd. There was still so much to be done, but she was determined to help the kingdom become what it should be again. It was a heavy burden to carry alone.

No, not alone. She had her friends, her counselors, and hopefully, her grandparents.

And perhaps …

She reached into her pocket and pulled out the thread she always kept with her. She wasn’t sure why.

Closing her eyes, she whispered, “Unseen Prince.”

He didn’t appear, but a voice echoed in her mind.

I’m here, Aneira.

She smiled.

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