Anna rolled over and groaned. What was this mattress stuffed with? Gravel? It was impossible to sleep on it. One would think such a thick bed would be soft at least. It was worse than sleeping directly on the ground. Giving up, she rose and swung her legs over the edge, her toes searching for the ladder.
There! Her toe caught a rung, and she shifted her weight, but — too soon! For a long moment, she was falling, then the floor struck her with a muffled thud. Thank God for thick carpets. Everything in the inn was thick: thick beds, thick walls, thick carpets. Thick-headed people. No. That was unkind. They were simple folk, but that didn’t mean they were stupid.
She pushed herself into a sitting position and looked back up — way up — at the bed, and sighed. She might as well sleep on the floor. There was no way she was going to climb back up there just to toss and turn on that lumpy mattress. The floor wasn’t exactly soft — the carpet was firm despite its thickness — but at least it was smooth and relatively clean. Pillowing her head on her arm, she stretched out and finally dozed off.
She felt mere minutes had passed before the creak of the door woke her. As she sat up, she found that her joints had stiffened overnight. With a groan, she faced her visitor.
“Why are you on the floor, dear?” The innkeeper peered at her with concern, her age-spotted hands fluttering before her.
Anna didn’t want to insult her. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I couldn’t sleep way up there. I’m afraid of heights.”
The old woman shuffled over and grabbed Anna’s arm. Seeing the bruises from the horrible mattress, she cackled — actually cackled. Just like a witch in a story. “You’re the one: the real princess! Now, at last we can appease the gods!”
“What? I’m not a princess!”
With surprising speed and strength, she pulled Anna’s hands behind her back, and tied her wrists together with a rope she produced from the depths of her apron pockets. Too shocked to protest, Anna allowed herself to be led outside, but she came to a sudden stop as soon as she exited the back door. Dominating the small backyard was a large, square chunk of marble, its surface marred with dark stains. Was that… blood? It couldn’t be — could it?
She jerked away from the landlady and yanked at her bonds, her breath coming in ragged gasps. “What is that?” she demanded, tilting her head toward the stone… thing.
“What does it look like, dear? It’s an altar to the gods.” The old woman’s voice carried an undercurrent of something wild and zealous, and Anna’s heart skipped a beat.
“Which gods?” she asked through numb lips.
Those pale blue eyes that yesterday had been so kind and gentle fastened on her; now all they reflected was madness. “The only true gods! The gods of death!” Her smile widened, displaying several missing teeth, and she cackled again. Turning toward the altar, she began to chant in a strange language, her voice rising and falling in a singsong cadence.
Anna’s whole body went cold. She turned and fled back into the inn, her entire being straining toward the open road through the front door. The rope finally gave way beneath her frantic tugging, and as she passed through the dining room, she tossed it onto the heavy wood table. She sprinted into the front hall, flung the door open, and burst out into the early morning sunshine. And nearly ran right into a tall young man dressed as a member of the king’s guard.
He caught her shoulders, steadying her as she stumbled to a stop. Nearly limp with relief, Anna gripped his arms and lifted her wide eyes up to his face. “Please help me!” Her voice broke. “She means to kill me!”
“Who means to kill you?” His voice was deep and calm, soothing her frayed nerves.
She took a shaky breath. “There’s an altar in the backyard. To the gods of death. She tied me up and took me out there.”
“And yet you managed to free yourself? How resourceful of you.”
There was a note in his voice that gave her pause. She searched his face, and took a step back, suddenly wary. There was something not quite right about this guard. “Will you help me?”
“Of course I will help you.”
She breathed a sigh of relief, her legs nearly buckling. He grabbed her arm, and — to her dismay — dragged her back inside the inn. “Wait! No! Not back in there!” She struggled against him, to no effect; she might as well have tried to move the altar. “You’re hurting me!”
He laughed. “I apologize, your highness.” The soothing tone was completely gone now; his voice was cold and mocking.
She continued to fight him as he towed her through the inn, past the table where her bonds still lay, and out the back door. “Please don’t do this,” she begged, hating her weakness. With an effort, she managed to steady her voice. “The king will not forgive this.”
“I serve a power greater than the king.” He forced her to kneel before the altar, his hands like manacles on her arms. “I found something you lost, mother.”
The old woman grinned. “Nicely done, my son.” She handed him a short length of rope. “Tie her hands, then; be a dear. I have to make the prayers.”
“I’m not a princess!” Anna shouted, her voice shaking.
He laughed as he bound her, the callouses on his large hands coarse against her skin. He tied them tighter than before, cutting off the bloodflow; her hands began to lose feeling. “Sure, sure.” He hoisted her up onto the altar, lifting her as if her weight had no meaning, as if her struggles were nothing.
“My father is a farmer, and my mother is a miller’s daughter,” she continued, tears spilling over now to run down into her ears — she was flat on her back on the marble surface, unable to move.
Ignoring her, he tied her ankles together, then piled sticks of wood around and over her. She couldn’t see the old woman but could hear her chanting. “Please,” she begged, her voice choked. “Please don’t do this.” Her protests were cut off when he stuffed a dirty wad of cloth into her mouth and tied a strip of fabric around her head to keep it there. It tasted like it had been used to clean floors, and she choked and gagged. She was about to die, and she couldn’t do anything. She couldn’t get away. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t even scream.