There is a game the royal family likes to play in my country of ice and snow. A game of bells, and sand, and death. A game they have never lost in the three hundred years they have ruled over us.
There is no safety for us anymore in the waxing and waning of the moon. Whether by nature or practice, the royal family have learned to control their transformations at will, and we bow to them without question. For this is New Wallachia, and there are wolves in the dark.
They are an evil sort, these aristocrats of fang and claw. Spoiled, arrogant creatures that cannot fathom the malice they commit so wantonly. In the same way that cruel children will pick the wings off flies caught in honey, they will pick the limbs off a farmer tending his field. Our country is little more than a cage to them, and we are the rats trapped inside it.
Our borders to the outside world have long been closed. No one is allowed in or out of this land. For what wolfpack would let an entire herd go free? We make do with what we can. We grow our own food, raise our own sheep. It is enough. It has to be. With jagged mountains to the north and the Black Sea to the south, there is only one way out of New Wallachia, and that is through the ringing of the bell.
On the first day of the new moon, the royal family, when they are at their most human, descends from their castle of black iron and glass to the nearby village where an ancient bell tower stands above all else. They force us to gather round and taunt us for a challenger to ring the bell, and when no one does they laugh without mirth. A custom that dates back to the founding of our country, when King Ivar defeated Vlad Dracula for the crown.
It is said that once the Impaler fell to the jaws of our rightful king, he built a tower of stone then hung a bell on top, setting the one and only law of succession. If there ever were a challenger for the title of sovereign, be they nobleman or peasant, they must first ring the bell and then kill the current ruler for all to witness. No assassins in the dark. No political dealings. Just a coronation of blood and death.
Then, like with all customs, the ritual changed with the passing of the centuries. If anyone should ever be brave enough to ring the bell, a line is drawn and an hourglass is brought out from the castle. The challenger will have one full hour to flee as far and as fast as they can. For they are not wild beasts, these monsters of my country. They understand that a chase over too soon is no fun for anyone.
If the challenger should make it through the pine forest and across the miles of open plains to the other side of the border, they have earned their freedom. However, once that final grain of sand tumbles down, one member of the royal family will turn to their true form, and the hunt begins.
No one has ever made it to the border before. We know this because the few who have tried have all been brought back, and in a large enough piece as to be identified. It is a fool’s gambit, this dark and twisted game they play. For no man, woman, or child could ever hope to outrun our dear royals.
There are those who try to flee the country under the cover of darkness, and for them I have the most pity. At least the families of those who ring the bell have something to bury once it’s over. The lowest branches of the royal family, the dukes and the duchesses, patrol the borders at night. They glide through darkness like eels through water and howl into the wind when they find someone trying to cross over. It is a sound that has never failed to wake me, and once the howling stops, I find that I can no longer sleep.
It was after one such night that the blacksmith emerged from the woods. I was ten years old at the time and working as a baker’s apprentice. I was grateful for the work. Plenty of other children my age had been sent to labour in the tanneries or out in the cold with the fur trappers. My master had a habit of drinking too much and would often beat me if I burnt a loaf by accident, but it was worth it to spend my days near the warmth of an oven.
When I first started my apprenticeship, I was told that a baker must rise early if he wished to have his breads ready by morning. What I wasn’t told was that a baker’s apprentice must rise even earlier in order to get the real work done by the time the baker arrived. While the rest of the village had only begun to stir from their beds, I had already lit the ovens, poured and measured the flour, and gathered the eggs from the hen house out back. All that was left was to break apart the layers of ice that had formed on the barrels of cream we stored in the nearby alley.
As I chipped away at the frozen shards of dairy, my fingers numb from the work, I saw the blacksmith make his way down the street. He carried nothing but a small bag slung over one shoulder, and the packed snow crunched under his boots as he walked. I was young then and ignorant to much of the world, but even I could see he was a man in search of death.
The blacksmith was tall and thick-shouldered with two very solid hands at the ends of his arms. A man well suited for his profession. He wore a heavy leather coat with thick wool breeches and a shirt that was thinning at the seams. The early morning frost coated his beard, aging him beyond his years, but he was still very much in the prime of his life. He stared at me as he passed, and I saw that his eyes were the colour of a clear winter sky.
I knew him, of course. Everyone in a village knows their blacksmith. Horses always needed to be shoed. Ploughs needed sharpening. Not to mention that a blacksmith’s forge is often where many held council or aired grievances. So yes, I knew him. Just like I knew why his forge had been cold these last few months.
It happens sometimes. Not often, but it happens. Someone in the royal family gets a little too restless sitting in the castle all winter long or grows bored hunting the elk in the pine forest. Officially, Prince Adrian killed the blacksmith’s wife for the crime of hoarding silver, a capital offence in our country. They never found any of course. No one had been foolish enough to possess silver in New Wallachia for decades. But that didn’t matter. Not to them.
They came for her in the full dark of early morning and pulled her from her home. Seven of them in total, hackles raised and ready for blood. The blacksmith did his best to fight them off with his hammer, but it was made from iron and therefore useless. When there was no more strength in his arms, two barons held him down, making sure he could watch as the prince tore out her throat. I was not there to see this, but word of such cruelty has a way of spreading faster than a fever in a village such as mine.
Six months had passed since then, and the forge had remained under lock and chain. Most had assumed the blacksmith hanged himself out in the woods. He would not have been the first. Others assumed he wandered towards the border for the dukes and duchesses to take him away in the night. I never made assumptions either way.
Curious, I placed the lid back on the barrel of cream and followed the blacksmith, keeping my distance. The windows of the village were tinted white with frost, and the frozen air singed the insides of my nostrils with every breath. I had a thousand questions inside of me burning to be asked, but I said nothing, not wanting to break the spectre of what I was seeing. The streets were empty save for the two of us, and in the centre of the village square was the bell tower.
The ancient and yellowed bones of those who’d once been foolish enough to challenge King Ivar for the throne had been left between the tower’s stones as a reminder for anyone who dared reach for the rope next. The blacksmith stopped and stared up at the copper bell dangling at the top, greened with time and covered in icicles. Whether it was prayer, contemplation, or common sense that was stopping him, it didn’t last, and he stepped forward. Panic gripped my throat as I realised what was happening, and before I could say anything, he pulled the rope with all his might. It creaked like old wood and as it ascended back towards the heavens, the bell tolled for all to hear.
For a moment nothing happened, and the only sound of the world was the ringing of the bell. Then, like the spreading of some great fire, every frost-covered window of the village was suddenly aglow with lantern light. People ran from their homes, half-dressed in night shirts and stocking feet to see who had rung the bell. It was not long until a crowd had formed around the tower, and as the final chime died away, a faint light began to glow from high up in the castle.
It took almost half an hour for the royal family to walk down the short winding path to the village. They may have been monsters, but royalty never hurries. The crowd parted around them as they entered the village square; some even bowed their heads. There were thirteen of them in total. Nearly the entire royal family save for the king. No one had seen him in years, and hushed whispers that he had passed away in secret had been slowly spreading throughout the country.
They wore tattered evening gowns and shredded winter coats that brushed the snow as they walked, their bare feet unaffected by the cold. Leading the pack was none other than Prince Adrian himself. He stared at the blacksmith with a pair of golden-coloured eyes.
“So, the doting husband returns.” The prince smiled, showing off his four sharpened canine teeth. A family trait of sorts.
“I’m leaving, Adrian,” said the blacksmith.
The prince’s nostrils flared. “Yes, we have very good hearing. If you wished to die so prominently, all you need to have done is ask. There’s no cause for all of these theatrics.”
“I’m not dying. I’m leaving. I’m leaving you and this god-forsaken country behind me.”
All at once the royal family broke out into a chorus of high, yipping laughter.
“Oh, and what makes you so sure you can make it to the border?”
“How long has it been since someone played the game?” asked the blacksmith. “Five years? Ten? I’d imagine you must be getting quite bored scratching fleas and chasing your tails all day.”
No one moved. There had never been a soul brave enough to speak to a member of the royal family like this. Let alone to the next in line for the throne. The entire village square held its collective breath. The prince’s eyes narrowed.
“When I kill you,” said the prince in a terrifyingly calm voice, “I won’t eat you afterward. No. Not a nibble. I’m going to stake you to the side of this tower, just as my father did with his would-be challengers, and let the birds and the foxes and the worms have at you. Then, when you are nothing but bones, I will grind you to dust and scatter you to the wind.”
“I still have my hour,” replied the blacksmith.
The prince spat and turned to a member of the royal family.
“Radu, get the hourglass.”
The one known as Radu began to protest, but the prince let out a low growl from the back of his throat. In an instant Radu was sprinting back towards the castle.
While we waited for the hourglass, the blacksmith dug a line in the snow with the heel of his boot. This would be the starting point. Until the final grain of sand fell to the bottom, the prince could not cross it. Members of the crowd began to spread out, giving the two of them as much room as possible while still being able to see.
The hourglass was smaller than I’d expected. The wood had been stained to a dark brown while the intricate bronze designs that ran across the base shone from a recent polish. Some of the older boys had once told me that the sand inside was the long dead ashes of Dracula himself, but I don’t know if I truly believe them.
The various members of the royal family stood and leaned against the bell tower while the prince met the blacksmith at the freshly dug line.
“Turn it,” said the prince as he placed the hourglass into the blacksmith’s outstretched palm. “It can’t begin unless you turn it.”
The blacksmith looked down at the intricate display of wood, glass, and metal in his hand. He held it preciously as he would a small child.
“Do you even remember her name?” he asked.
The prince took a short intake of breath. “Rachel. Her name was Rachel. Will that make your death any easier?”
The blacksmith shook his head.
“No, but it will make my leaving of this place that much more satisfying.”
He turned the hourglass over and placed it in the snow.
Part of me expected him to start running as soon as the glass touched the ground, but he didn’t. Instead he simply stood up to his full height and stared into the prince’s narrow golden eyes. Neither of them moved, each daring the other to break the rules of the game first.
Eventually, the blacksmith turned and took a dozen or so paces, then turned back around. The prince hadn’t moved an inch. A few of the villagers began to murmur at this. It was obvious what the blacksmith was doing. He had never intended to make a break for the border. He’d planned to face down the prince as one final act of defiance. A brave but ultimately futile gesture.
The prince sighed. “So, there shall be no chase then?”
Ignoring the question, the blacksmith lowered the small bag from over his shoulder and undid the string. From inside the bag, he pulled out a long knife still in it sheath. The prince seemed almost annoyed at this.
“You still have time to get a reasonable head start,” said the prince through gritted teeth. “You can still make this fun for me.”
The blacksmith disregarded this as well and removed his heavy leather coat. He folded it carefully into a small square and placed it a few feet away from him in the snow. His thin shirt rippled in the breeze.
“Don’t ignore me!” shouted the prince. Rage was building in his voice, but still he stayed on his side of the line.
If the blacksmith was cold, he did not show it. The people in the crowd stamped their feet or blew into their cupped hands for warmth. I myself could feel my ears starting to burn from the frigid air, and I began to curse myself for not grabbing my hat before I’d left the bakery. The blacksmith faced the prince, his feet shoulder-width apart. One hand gripped the wooden handle of the knife, and the other held its sheath. Like a knight preparing to draw his sword.
As more and more sand tumbled down, the sky overhead turned from the slate grey of old chalk to the crisp blue of morning. The prince had taken to pacing back and forth, twin trails of steam flaring from his nostrils as he went.
“Why won’t you run?” he asked, breaking the silence between them.
“Because it’s what you want me to do, and I do not give murderers what they want,” said the blacksmith.
“You’re going to die.”
“No. I am going to leave.”
The prince roared at him, and for a moment I thought he would lunge, but he didn’t. He might have been furious at the blacksmith’s impudence, but the prince understood that the laws of the country were his laws, and if he himself did not follow them, no one would. Power struggles within the family would break out, and whoever was next in line for the throne, as he was, would suddenly find a very large target on their back. So, he continued to pace and waited for the sand to run out.
When the top bulb of the hourglass was half of the way empty, the prince did something rather unexpected. He removed the torn winter coat he wore from his shoulders and then his trousers. It was like looking at a granite statue that could move. Each muscle flexed and gleamed as he continued to pace unashamed at his nakedness in the weak morning light. A few of the female wolves scoffed at this, unimpressed at the bravado.
Steam started to roll off the prince’s body.
“What weak little things you humans are,” said the prince, emphasising the word with all the disdain his body could muster. “You scurry around your little fields with your doe eyes and your soft bellies. Wandering from winter to winter, barely clinging to life as you go along. Something as pathetic as you deserves to be ruled by us.”
“Perhaps,” said the blacksmith “but then that would mean all you rule over are pathetic things and a lot of snow.”
The prince was done talking then.
I had never seen a member of the royal family change before. In a matter of seconds, flesh and sinew shifted to form the thick haunches of an elite predator. Muffled clicks rang out across the village square as bones snapped and reshaped themselves into four paws and a muzzle. A long tail sprouted from the base of the prince’s spine. Dark black fur grew from every pore, and soon the transformation was complete.
Standing higher than a cart horse, the prince was by far the most terrifying thing I had ever seen. Each paw was the size of an oven door, and his teeth curved like scimitars. Clouds of hot air puffed from of an open maw as the same pair of golden-coloured eyes blazed like embers at the blacksmith across from him. Although the blacksmith did not back down, he did grip the handle of his knife a little tighter.
Dawn had broken over the hilltop, and light began to pour itself into the village. The wolf’s huge head swung towards the hourglass then back at the blacksmith. Time was dropping away one grain at a time, and as it did so, the low murmuring of the crowd fell away to silence. Soon there would be blood, and we all knew it.
With only a minute or so left, the prince crouched low to the ground, his pointed ears flush against his skull. He let out a thunderous growl that rattled the inside of my chest and shook windows in their frames. Air crackled between the two as anticipation built to a boiling point, and then, without sound or ceremony, the final grain of sand fell.
The world slowed as the prince hurled himself across the line with lightning speed, his claws tearing out entire cobbles from the street as he bolted. He closed the gap between him and his prey in an instant, jaws open wide for the kill. There was a flicker of light, and the two collided into each other, sending them both flying across the square. A streak of hot blood against the snow trailed behind them.
Neither stirred for what felt like eons but, as to be expected, the prince started to shift and gather himself. I turned away then. It had been a valiant enough effort, but we all knew the blacksmith couldn’t... A woman in the crowd gasped. I whipped my head back around to see the entangled mess of wolf and man.
Instead of rising to his feet, the prince slowly shifted to one side, as if being lifted from underneath. The blacksmith emerged a moment later, gasping for air. The hot steam of spilt blood wafted around him. No one in the village spoke. No one even breathed.
When his senses returned to him, the blacksmith leaned over the prince’s neck and grabbed something from the snow. He held it up to the light. The top half of the prince’s skull had been severed clean. The blade must have caught him between his upper and lower jaw then continued until there was nothing left to cut. The two golden eyes still burned in their sockets as the blacksmith put the half of a skull back where he’d found it.
A high-pitched scream wailed from somewhere behind me and freed me from my self-induced paralysis. I saw a baroness of the royal family cover her mouth.
“What have you done?!” cried the baroness.
“Kill him!” shouted a duke next to her.
In a mixture of shock and rage, the royal family ran towards their fallen prince’s killer. In what looked to be an extreme effort of will, the blacksmith stood. Deep gashes ran down the length of right arm, and his left leg bent grotesquely. With no other option, he faced the rampaging wolfpack and prepared for their worst.
The one known as Radu got to him first. He wrapped the blacksmith’s hands behind his back. The blacksmith let out a scream as a fresh spurt of blood splattered the snow next to him. Furious, and with nowhere for their quarry to run, the royal family closed in, teeth ready for the kill.
But before a single bite could be taken, a long, drawn-out howl cut through the air.
The royal family froze, each one of them. They eyed one another, confirming that the howl had not come from any of them, and then peered up at the castle.
Along the path, a lone man was making his way towards the village. He wore an all-black uniform with brass buttons that ran up the centre of his chest and a long red cape that fluttered behind him as he walked. The man’s face was nothing but sharp angles and deep-set lines. As though he’d been carved from a block of wood. A full head of dull grey hair hung past his shoulders, and it wasn’t until he was well within the village centre did I notice the crown.
The royal family flung themselves to the ground in submission as the great King Ivar himself made his way towards the blacksmith. The blacksmith tensed as the king drew near but relaxed when he stopped a few feet away.
“You rang the bell?” asked the king. His voice was clear and cut through the air like the snapping of a tree branch.
The blacksmith, shaking from cold and loss of blood, nodded. The king glanced down at what remained of the prince.
“And you killed my son, Adrian.” This was not a question.
“Yes. I did,” said the blacksmith. Then, only because it was proper, he added, “Your Majesty.”
A moment hung in the air while the king appeared to be contemplating something.
“Where did you get the silver?”
Low whispering broke out amongst the crowd that had, until just then, been as silent as a graveyard.
“Hush,” said the king solemnly.
The whispers stopped in mid-air.
“It was a necklace,” answered the blacksmith. “Rachel, my wife, inherited it from her mother. It had been passed down through her family in secret since before you defeated Vlad Tepes. After Adrian killed her, he searched our home but couldn’t find where she’d hidden it. I dug it up and smelted it onto the blade in a forge I built out in the forest.”
The king did not smile at this, but he did nod as if some great mystery had just been revealed to him.
“You are the first human ever to kill one of my kind,” said the king. “What is it you wish for?”
The blacksmith leaned back, surprised at the question.
The king eyed what remained of the prince, and for the slightest of moments I no longer saw the great King Ivar, killer of Vlad Dracula and absolute sovereign of New Wallachia, but instead a father who’d just lost a son.
“The bell has been rung. A wolf has been slain. Rituals need to be completed and laws must be followed. Even by myself. I cannot give you the crown upon my head, but there must be something else you wish for.”
Cries of astonished protests broke out amongst the still-prone royal family, but the king snapped for them to be silent. They whimpered against the ground as they backed away.
The blacksmith shook his head and sighed, the weight of the morning’s events finally hitting him.
“I made a promise to my wife that I would leave this country. To start a new life beyond its borders. To grow old in comfort and happiness. That is what I wish for, King Ivar. To go in peace.”
With a heavy look upon his face, the king said, “Very well then. Let it be so. You may leave this country without interference from either me or anyone in my family. Go in peace, and may you never return.”
They left soon after, the king and his progeny. Once out of sight, everyone in the village closed in around what remained of the prince, needing to be sure the monster had been slain for good. Everyone except for me and the blacksmith, that is.
I went over and retrieved his coat and his bag from the snow. He didn’t thank me for this. He didn’t say anything at all. He simply held a finger to his lips and nodded to a place beyond where the dead prince lay. Where a small glint of silver caught the morning sun.
Already the people of the village were laying claim to trophies. Things they could hang above their doors or mantle. There would be drink and dancing in abundance tonight. Songs would be sung in the streets, and there might even be talk of revolution. For the first time in centuries, there was hope, and through all the excitement, no one saw as I pulled the wooden handle from the snow.
New Wallachia was still our cage. That much was still true. A cage where the wolves who ruled over us spent their time keeping us locked inside. A cage they themselves never ventured from. The blacksmith had already gone by the time I turned around, limping towards a future all his own, and the only thing I could think about was, who would be brave enough, or heartbroken enough, or proud enough, or foolish enough to play the game next? Then I gripped the silver dagger a little harder.