The Strange Princess
Queen Constance held her sapphire gown with both hands so as not to trip. As she hurried along the broad hallway. Her expression changed from one of worry to a growing sense of alarm. She stopped another servant and asked the same question. The servant, at first startled, then, seeing the Queen’s worried expression, bowed solemnly and apologised, shaking his head in the negative. Arriving at the throne room, the Queen summoned the captain of the palace guard.
“Captain, the princess is nowhere to be found. I have asked several servants and maids, but no one has seen her recently.”
“None of the guards have seen her either, your Majesty. Shall I organise a search party?”
The Queen paced up and down in front of the throne. “Yes, at once. She is not in any of her usual haunts. It is not like her to be missing for so long. She might have gone beyond the palace grounds. If something happened...” The Queen did not say further what was on her mind, but the captain had a good idea of what the Queen was thinking. The princess was a peculiar and temperamental individual. Who knows how she would react if anything from the ordinary happened to her!
“I will supervise the search myself, your Majesty. She can’t have gone far; we will find her. Have no fear” The captain bowed briskly. He knew well how the Queen was overprotective of her daughter and the reasons for being so. He hurried off to organise the search for the errant princess, trying to think of all the places the princess might be. Usually, the princess preferred quiet secluded spots. It was not like her to go beyond the palace grounds.
Ariana held her hands at waist height, randomly swinging her arms from side to side. Her gait was a pronounced awkward swaying movement as she ambled along the sidewalk. She drew both alarmed and curious glances from passersby. She knew what they were thinking as they stared at her. They considered her to be strange. Ariana didn’t care about what others thought of her. She was happy in her own narrow world as long as they left her alone. The people outside her peripheral vision were like annoying gnats buzzing around as far as Ariana was concerned. She made sure to take note in her head of the way she had come so she could find her way home again. Ariana stopped to admire some flowers in a garden. A sound like an oooh! Left her lips as she spotted a colourful butterfly come to rest on a large yellow flower. Ariana watched, fascinated. Time meant nothing to her as she observed the butterfly and its merry dance amongst the flowers. At length, she became aware that three young men had stopped and gathered around her. Ariana started to move away, but the men blocked her path.
“Mmm... Excuse me... Excuse me,” Ariana said, her voice high-pitched with an empathise on each syllable, as she tried to pass the youths.
The young men laughed and mocked her. “Excuse me. Excuse me.” They mimicked, “You’re a weird one, aren’t you.” They looked her up and down and poked at her. “Have you escaped from a mad house? This dress is too good for someone like you. Did you steal it?” One of the youths said, pulling at her sleeve.
Ariana recoiled, holding her hands close to her face whenever they touched her. “No steal, No steal mine,” she said. The world inside her swelled, threatening to spill into the real world as she tried to contain it. “Go away. Go away, no hurt anyone.” Clasping hands to her head, Ariana shook her head e from side to side in an erratic fashion.
Suddenly a hand reached out, pulling her away from the youths. She felt a comforting arm around her shoulders. “Be on your way, lads or I will report you to the watch for molesting a woman. This is no way to treat a lady.” The young men disgruntedly backed off and went on their way.
Ariana looked up at her rescuer. He had a kind face and a reassuring presence about him. Tall, fair-haired and clean-shaven. He was also well dressed. Ariana as was her way, noted in minute detail this person who suddenly entered her world. She would recognise him straight away if they ever met again.
“Are you alright, miss? I could see those lads were pestering you, so I stepped in. They should know better.” His voice was mellow but firm
Ariana nodded several times. “Mmm,. I’m fine...Mmm, Thank you. I not want to hurt anyone.”
He gave her a puzzled look. “My name is Eldon. Can I see you home? Those thugs might return.”
“You Eldon, Eldon. Yes, Eldon can see me home.”
He smiled. “Ah, Yes, I’m Eldon, and you are?” He stared at her for a moment. He thought her pretty with jet black hair that just touched the top of her shoulders, a fringe cut above her eyebrows, deep blue eyes, and a creamy complexion. She wore a pale pink satin dress and white sandals. He could tell by how she walked and spoke that she had some kind of handicap that made her different from anyone else yet enchanting in his eyes.
“Ari. me Ari”, She answered and nodded as they walked in the general direction of the palace. They were not far from the palace gates when Ariana stopped as several men in uniform approached. She pointed at one of them, that looked to be the leader. “Oh, captain, captain.”
The man suddenly spotted her with a sigh of relief. “Princ... He began seeing she was with a stranger. He paused. “ I mean, my lady, we have been looking everywhere for you; your mother is worried to death.” The captain glanced at Eldon. “Thank you for taking care of her I will see her safely home from here.”
Eldon nodded, watching her leave with the captain and his men. He pursed his lips in thought. The captain seemed to know her well. “Did he call her princess? Maybe it was just a term of endearment. Perhaps the captain is her father?” No, that didn’t make sense. Why would he call her my lady? Wait! Could she be princess Ariana? The princess was said to be reclusive from what he heard and a bit strange. “She said her name was Ari.” Eldon nodded, giving a low whistle. He would like to meet her again if only to confirm his suspicions.
Queen Constance sat on the gilded throne, smoothing her gown with a hand. She pouted with concern, worry lines forming under her eyes. The captain stood patiently waiting like the Queen; he also had doubts. Unlike the Queen, however, he did not let them show.
“You saying the man that was with Ariana when you found her is now a palace guard?”
“Yes, your majesty.”
“And that he recently joined the guards. Ariana said he helped her, but you know what she is like. She didn’t explain how he helped her. What do you know about him, captain.”
“He is the son of Lord Gastile. Eldon, I believe, is his name... Lord Gastile entered his son’s name to be a palace guard, which he initially refused for some reason, but recently changed his mind.”
The Queen wrung her hands together, feeling ill at ease, her expression troubled. “Do you think he approached Ariana, knowing who she is? He might be another golddigger out to take advantage of her.”
“It’s possible, your Majesty; however, we couldn’t turn his entry down without valid reason or proof that he approached her for nefarious reasons. Lord Gastile is prominent and well respected amongst the aristocracy. It wouldn’t do to offend him by refusing his son admission into the palace guard.”
The Queen nodded with a deep sigh. “I know what you are trying to say, captain. I’m not sure what to make of this either. As you know, my priority is keeping the princess safe. She is my all. I would gladly give up my throne or die for her if needed.” She paused, “For now, let’s try and keep Ariana from meeting this Eldon Gastile again. Have someone keep a close watch on him. I want to know what he does in his free time, who his friends are, and more importantly, if he attempts to meet with the princess.”
The captain bowed formally. “Understood, your Majesty
From a secret hiding place behind the throne, Ariana overheard the conversation with her mother and the captain. Secret passages connected the throne room to many other rooms in the palace. Ariana, as a child, was lonely. Her mother was always busy with matters of state and often left her in the care of servants. Being different, the servants let Ariana do as she pleased with little supervision. So she was free to wander through the halls exploring all the nooks and crannies. That was how she discovered the secret passages.
Ariana couldn’t fully grasp why her mother wanted to stop her from meeting Eldon again. She knew her mother loved her and wanted her to be happy. Ariana also understood that her mother tended to be overprotective. She couldn’t understand what all that had to with whether or not she could see Eldon. Eldon was a kind, warmhearted person. He helped her escape the bullies. Ariana was wise enough to see and know that much. So why couldn’t her mother see it? Anger grew inside her Ariana wanted her mother not to stop her from seeing Eldon. Again the world within her swelled in response. She had to bite her tongue to keep the torrent from spilling into the real world. This one thing she had told no one before. Not even her mother knew her secret. Ariana decided long ago not to let others know about it. They already thought her strange at least they didn’t fear her. It would be different if they knew her secret; even her mother might come to fear her. Ariana didn’t want that. She didn’t want her mother to worry. It would only make her mother worry more if she knew her secret.
Ariana shook her head. “Mmm, no, not good. Can never tell mother secret.” Perhaps she could tell Eldon, though. She felt he wouldn’t look at her any differently. He would understand and keep her secret as long as needed. She waited until the throne room was empty, then sneaked out. She returned to her room, nodding to the servants as she went. They were all very polite to her face. Still, Ariana knew they were wary of her and even ridiculed her when they thought she wasn’t there. They didn’t understand her because she was different. There was one maid Ariana had known since childhood and considered as close to being a friend as circumstances allowed. Clara was waiting for her when she returned and had been covering for her if anyone came looking.
Clara bowed with a sigh of relief to see Ariana. “Highness, no one has been looking for you.”
“Mmm, why do you keep calling me Highness? Call me Ari. I thought we were friends.”
Clara frowned with concern, “Highness, you know I can’t. What if I get into the habit of calling you by name and let it slip when others are around? I would likely get locked in the dungeon for being disrespectful or worse and wouldn’t be able to be your maid anymore.”
“Mmm, you exaggerate. My mother wouldn’t lock you in the dungeon because you called me by name. Besides, I wouldn’t let that happen even if mother or anyone else wanted to lock you up,”
Clara sighed, a half smile briefly crossing her face. “Thank you, Highness, you are too good to me.”
Ariana smiled, raising her hands, her fingers moving in a contorted fashion, a look of excitement on her face. “Mmm, in that case, I have a favour to ask.”
Clara sucked in a breath, raising her shoulders. She let it out slowly as she lowered her shoulders, knowing the princess’s mannerisms reflected her excitement. That meant the princess was planning something risky that would involve her. “What is it, Highness? You know I can’t help with anything that puts you at risk.”
Ariana smiled and did a twirl, then pointed the finger at Clara. “Because if you get caught helping me, you’ll be thrown in the dungeon?”
Clara winced, nodding her head several times. “You got it, Highness. She paused, staring at Ariana briefly. Oh, alright, tell me what you want me to do.” She finished resigned to her fate, whatever that might be.
“Mmm, it won’t be long until the Spring Ball; help me prepare for it.”
Clara frowned, combing a hand through her straw hair. “Highness, you know the Queen never lets you attend balls for your own good and safety.”
Ariana nodded, “Y...es, I know, but I’m going to attend this time. N...o one is going to stop me!”
“But why?” Clara asked, so stunned by Ariana’s words she forgot her usual reticence to always use protocol
“Mmm, someone I must meet will be there,” Ariana said, smiling brightly.
Clara sighed, “I’m doomed. It won’t be the dungeon for me; I’ll be hung by the neck if caught.” Clara mimicked a noose around her neck and choking sounds.
Ariana shook her head, “No, I won’t let you hang. Ariana, protect. Clara is a good person. Always help me.”
Clara smiled. She hadn’t known the princess for many years but had got to know her well enough in a short time. The princess was daunting to deal with for those who didn’t know much about her. A better understanding came with patience and a willingness to communicate. The Queen had advised Clara to better understand the princess and help her. As long as it didn’t put the princess at risk. Clara didn’t see anything wrong with allowing the princess to attend the ball. Clara clasped her hands together, her smile widening. “Alright, Highness, where shall we start? Just as long as you won’t let anyone hang me if we get caught.”
Ariana shook her head vigorously, “Mmm... Not let...Mmm”
“What? You stopped mid-sentence. You will let me hang?” Clara protested.
Ariana giggled girlishly, “Mmm, got you. I was joking.”
Clara looked amazed, staring at Ariana. “Wow, Highness can tease cruelly now as well.”
The night before the Spring Ball, Queen Constance sat on a padded chair reading the day’s reports in her study. An oil lamp stood on one corner of the oak desk. She cupped her hands over her face, closed her eyes briefly, and hunched her shoulders. She lowered her shoulders with a tired sigh. There was one final report to read, which she saved to last. The captain’s information on Eldon Gastile. Queen Constance read the missive carefully several times before putting it down. She was still none the wiser, and that worried all the more. According to the report, Eldon Gastile had done nothing suspicious and hadn’t made any attempt to contact the princess. He kept to himself and hadn’t made any close friends at the palace. His work as a guard was exemplary. The captain concluded by saying he gave Gastile duties that kept him well away from the princess. At length, the Queen stood stretching her aching limbs, blew out the lamp and headed for her bed chambers.
The Spring Ball...
Tradition dictated that the palace held three dances a year. The Spring, Harvest and Winter. It was an option for guests to wear masks at these dances if they so wished. The ballroom was large and opulent, with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and oil lamps on the ornately decorated walls. Paintings depicting nobles from the past were mounted on the walls at various intervals. A balcony area overlooked the floor below. The dance floor itself was polished wood with a sitting area around the walls on three sides. Seeing it for the first time, Eldon couldn’t help but wonder at its sheer grandeur. He sat around a table with three other guards. He was busy taking in the spectacle when he heard one of the guards mention the princess.
“Will the princess be attending the ball?” Eldon asked; he had seen her around the palace from a distance but never close up. He felt sure the captain kept him from getting close to the princess, not that he minded. In fact, Eldon wondered why he bothered joining the palace guard. Joining just to confirm it was the princess he met was a ridiculous idea in the first place. So he wasn’t sure why he did on reflection, but he couldn’t get out of it now. His father was so pleased and proud when Eldon changed his mind and decided to join the palace guard.
“The Queen never lets the princess attend the ball.” One of his companions answered
“Are you serious? Don’t you know the princess is weird? She’s not quite right in the head. The Queen can’t even find anyone that would be willing to marry her.”
“Isn’t that disrespectful to the princess?”
“You haven’t met her, have you? or you wouldn’t have to ask about her.” Another of his companions said. The others nodded and laughed.
Eldon stared at them crossly; he got his feet.”Just because the princess is a little different from others doesn’t mean you can talk about her like that or treat her differently.” Fuming, he walked away in disgust. “How could they speak like about her?” He felt sorry for the princess. He spotted the Queen talking to some nobles at the far end of the ballroom. Eldon considered telling the Queen what was being said behind her back about the princess. “No, perhaps not The Queen probably already knows. That’s why she keeps the princess out of public view.” He sighed. It wasn’t right; the princess should be allowed to mix in public. Surely, that would help the princess and enable others to understand her better. Eldon circulated around the ballroom, watching the dancers on the floor. Many of the ladies wore harlequin masks, while few of the men bothered to wear masks.
Ariana stood at the entrance to the ballroom, hesitant to enter. The noise and the people milling around disturbed her. She wanted to turn and run away but forced herself to step forward. She wore a crimson full-length dress with a high neckline made from cotton and satin with matching flat red shoes. She hadn’t worn the dress for some time, so she didn’t think her mother would remember it. A cat face mask hid her features. She was sure nobody would recognise her as long as she walked slowly and didn’t speak. She focused on the musicians playing instead of the chatter of many voices. The music helped soothe her as she walked stiffly down the stairs keeping her arms by her sides, trying to walk as normally as possible. Ariana found an empty table and sat observing all the people on the dance floor. She scanned the ballroom looking for Eldon. There were so many people in an enclosed space that Ariana involuntary moved her hands to cover her ears as her senses threatened to overwhelm her. The world within her responded in kind. People crowded around her just as she thought she had it under control. A noble asked her to dance. Ariana remained silent, but the noble pressed her again; several palace guards joined her, asking for a dance. She shook her head. This time, the world within seeped out, threatening to engulf all. At that moment, she spotted Eldon and called out to him.
“Eldon, Eldon, help Ari,”
Although a short distance away, Eldon hadn’t recognised Ariana, but as she called out. He recognised her voice. He could see she was in distress and made his way toward her. Something odd seemed to happen around her, a rippling effect in the air surrounding the princess. He reached out to her, and she grabbed his hand. At the same time, the Queen also recognised Ariana’s voice. She hastily excused herself and headed her in the general direction she heard Ariana. Eldon led Ariana out of the ballroom into the relative quiet of the lobby.
“Your Highness, are you okay?” he asked with concern.
“Mmm am okay now, Eldon here. You know who I am now. Mmm, you saw it also?”
“Yes, I know who you are now. You are princess Ariana. I’m sorry I didn’t recognise you when we first met. Erm, your Highness, what do you mean by saw it? I don’t understand.”
“Mmm, never mind, as long as you never tell anyone, promise.”
Eldon looked confused, “I promise whatever it is, I won’t tell.”
Ariana smiled, did a twirl, then went on tiptoe and kissed Eldon on the cheek. “Why has your face turned bright red, Eldon?”
Eldon was speechless for a moment, “Princess, you don’t kiss someone you just met and don’t know, especially not without asking permission first.”
“Mmm, have met Eldon before. Know that Eldon is a good person. You rescued me twice already. About permission...” She paused, lowering her head to one side, smiled coyly and giggled. “ Mmm, I’m the princess no need to ask permission.”
Eldon felt flustered and confused, but at the same time, he couldn’t help but smile. The princess was definitely bewitching. He nodded, “You got me there, your Highness.”
From the partially open ballroom door, the Queen listened to most of the conversation with Ariana and Eldon Gastile. She silently closed the door before they finished talking, returning to the ball.
Queen Constance repositioned herself comfortably on the throne and smoothed her gown with one hand. On her right, the princess sat fidgeting while glancing between her mother and Clara, who stood before the Queen. Head bowed with a look of trepidation etched on her face.
“Mmm, mother...” the princess began.
“Ariana,” The Queen interrupted, raising a hand and giving her daughter a stern look. Ariana went quiet. The Queen turned to the maid. “Clara, I thought you were more responsible. I thought at least you would not let the princess get into any situation that would put her at risk or compromise her position.”
Clara wrung her hands nervously. “I’m sorry, your Majesty, it’s all my fault. I beg your forgiveness. I’ll try harder if you forgive me this one time.” Clara said, getting down on her knees and pleading.
Ariana tried to stay silent but couldn’t stand to see Clara hurting this way. “Mmm, mother is too harsh. Too harsh, not Clara’s fault. Mmm, I made Clara do it. I am not a child anymore; I can do what I want. Mother, not stop me. Mother, not hold me back.” The words came tumbling out all at once and were so clear that everyone in the throne room was taken aback. The Queen stared at Ariana in stunned silence for several moments.
Queen Constance cleared her throat, looking away for a moment before turning back to face Clara, still on her knees. “Get up, child. I never intended you any harm. I just wanted to give you a good scolding,” She paused, turning to the princess and giving her a severe look. “Happy now?” Ariana half got to her feet several times and gently clapped her hands, smiling and nodding her head.
The Queen sighed, “I can see that you are. You can go now, Clara.”
Clara bowed, “Thank you, your Majesty, you are too kind. I promise it won’t happen again.”
“Don’t make promises you won’t be able to keep.” The Queen glanced at Ariana with a meaningful look.
Queen Constance waited until Clara left, then turned to the captain standing on her left. “Bring him in, captain.” The captain bowed and then waved to a guard at the door. The guard went outside a moment and returned with Eldon Gastile. Eldon was ushered forward to face the Queen. As he bowed before the Queen, she regarded him silently for a moment. She was surprised to see Ariana hadn’t spoken out, having him stand before her. However, the princess looked at him in a significant way. The Queen had forgotten how good Ariana was at judging people’s character. An exceptional quality of the princess that helped make up for her disadvantages in other areas.
“Eldon Gastile, I have been remiss in not thanking you for helping the princess when you first met her.” She paused. I finally got the full story from the princess. Thank you sincerely for both then and last night at the ball.”
Eldon regarded the Queen, his expression sombre. “Your Majesty, I was only doing what anyone would do if they came across a lady in distress. As for last night, I could see the princess needed assistance. I only did my duty.”
The Queen bowed her head a moment, “I think not!”
“Your Majesty?” Eldon gave the Queen a bemused look.
“Not Everyone would help someone with Ariana’s affliction. Most would, at best, avoid her. At worst, cruelly mock and cast jibes at her.”
Eldon took a breath, raising his shoulders and letting it out with a heavy sigh as he lowered his shoulders. “Your Majesty, may I speak freely?”
The Queen nodded,” You can speak freely without repercussion, at least up to a point.” The Queen answered firmly. Giving Eldon a thoughtful look.
Eldon glanced at Ariana a moment then, taking a breath, regarded the Queen with a severe expression. “Your Majesty, please forgive me for speaking frankly but to keep the princess hidden away from public view is not healthy for her. If the people get to know what she is really like, they will surely change their minds about her.” Eldon paused, thinking he had gone too far. “At least that is my view, your Majesty. I’m sorry if I have gone too far and overspoke.” Eldon bowed his head apologetically.
The Queen looked to be in deep thought for several moments before speaking. All this time, Ariana remained quiet though fidgeting in her seat. “She trusts him that much to let him speak for himself.” Queen Constance’s train of thought came to a conclusion. She nodded slowly. “Tell me, Eldon Gastile, having known the princess only a short while, what is the princess really like? How will the princess being in public view more help people understand her better?”
“Your Majesty, if I dare to say in the short time I have known the princess, I found her enchanting, very intelligent and caring of others. I’m sure once the people see this side of the princess, they will come to adore her and forget her shortcomings.”
The Queen nodded slowly, pursing her lips, giving Eldon close scrutiny. “Very well, that will be your task from now on!”
Eldon looked confused, “Pardon your Majesty?”
“I think you heard me. “The princess will be seen more in public from now on. You will be her escort, liaison with the people and ensure her safety. It is what Ariana wants, and I have already agreed to it. I just wanted to hear what you had to say first. By the way, I heard most of what was said last night in the lobby.” The Queen finished giving Eldon a meaningful look.
Eldon blushed slightly and bowed, “You have given me a great honour and responsibility, your Majesty. I will do my utmost not to disappoint you or the princess. Erm...” He paused, wondering if he should mention what he saw around the princess at the ball. But seeing how the princess stared at him now and that he made a promise to keep her secret. He decided not to mention it. He wasn’t even sure what the secret was. And if it was connected to what he thought he saw around the princess at the ball.
The Queen gave him a questioning look, “Is there something else you want to say?”
“Ah, no, your Majesty, it is nothing. I’m just wondering when my new duties start.”
Ariana got to her feet and raised her hands, flexing her fingers in a twisted fashion. “Mmm, I’m just wondering when my new duties start.” She repeated. “Mmm, start now, Eldon now.”
Eldon realised he had been naive in assuming the people would change their attitudes towards the princess when they met her more often in public. He admitted some did have a change of heart, especially those that worked within the palace. Eldon was dismayed, however, that many didn’t. They would pretend to have changed their opinion when the princess or himself were there, but in private, they were the same as before. It had been almost a year since he became the princess’s escort, and they had attended several public events during that time. The one good thing about it was the princess was getting more confident in public and more sure of herself. Eldon thought the princess seemed subdued today, however. They had been on an outing to the market earlier in the day. He felt concerned it may have been too much for her.
“your Highness, are you not feeling well? You look pale and have hardly spoken since we returned from the market.”
“Mmm, I am well, thank you. Eldon, why still call me Highness in private call me Ari. I told you before.”
Eldon nodded with a smile. “Alright, Ari. Is that what has been bothering you? I won’t forget to call by name in private so cheer up.”
Ariana started to smile, stopped and frowned. “Mmm, Eldon, I saw a man and woman holding hands and kissing when we were at the market. Mmm, does that mean they like each other very much or maybe are married?”
Eldon stopped, still suddenly and blushed. “Erm, well, Ari, it’s hard to tell unless you know them personally, but I would say that they maybe like each other well enough to be able to kiss and hold hands.”
“Mmm, I kissed you once, Eldon; remember? Mmm, I have been thinking about this. When I kissed you, I thought it was maybe because I liked you. But you not kiss me. Maybe you don’t like Ari?”
Eldon was nonplussed and didn’t know what to say. He had to concede that he was fond of the princess but didn’t think it was romantically. He thought through his response quickly, choosing his words carefully. “Well, mmm, there are two ways you can like someone. First, you can like someone as a friend without any of the kissing and holding of hands. The second is in a romantic sense with the kissing and holding hands.”
Ariana considered a moment before saying more. “Mmm, the second is more serious, right?” Eldon nodded without speaking, wondering why he felt uncomfortable with how this conversation was going.
“Mmm, So you not kiss me because we are just friends, right?” He nodded. “But I prefer the second way best.”
Again Eldon was speechless, looking away a moment before changing the topic. “You must be tired, Ari; get some rest. I will see you tomorrow.” He left Ariana alone, heading back to his quarters. Eldon felt troubled by the conversation with Ariana. He considered whether he should ask the Queen if he could be relieved of his escort duties with the princess before matters became more complicated.
The next day Eldon met with Ariana as usual, expecting the princess to continue the conversation from the night before. The princess, however, was back to her normal self and never mentioned the discussion. It was as if the conversation had never occurred, leaving Eldon even more confused and slightly annoyed. At least now that Ariana seemed to have forgotten the conversation, he didn’t need to ask the Queen to be relieved of his escort duties. He doubted if the Queen would allow him a change of duty in any case.
“What shall we do today, Ari? We have a free day, so we can do whatever you want.” He asked the princess.
“Mmm, we have to wait for Clara to get here,” Ariana said, looking around agitatedly.
Eldon looked puzzled, “Wait for Clara. Why? Is something wrong?”
“No, Nothing wrong. Is secret need Clara to cover for our disappearance.”
Eldon felt even more confused. “Clara! Cover, disappearance, I don’t understand, Ari. What...”
Eldon was interrupted by a knock on the door, and Clara entered.
“Highness, I hope you will not get me in trouble again? And sir Gastile as well if you are caught.”
“Mmm, No trouble, we are just going to hide for a while. If anyone asks, we have gone for a walk outside the palace.” Ariana said with a mischievous smile.
Clara didn’t look too happy but nodded with a sigh.“Please, sir, Gastile, see that her Highness stays out of trouble for both our sakes.”
Eldon smiled, “I’ll do my best to keep her Highness from getting in trouble, Clara.”
Ariana led Eldon from her room to a deserted downstairs drawing room. She moved a hand over a raised area on the left wall and pressed. To Eldon’s astonishment, a hidden door in the wall suddenly opened. Ariana led Eldon through the network of hidden passages until they reached the throne room. Through a spyhole, which looked out from behind the throne, they watched as the Queen conducted the daily affairs of the state. It was impossible to see everyone in the throne room, but there were nobles and ladies, and a few ordinary people gathered about in the throne room. Ariana opened the door a crack so they could hear what was being said. A foreign dignitary had just entered the throne room. There was a sudden hush as he strode forward to stand before the Queen.
From his vantage point, Eldon frowned, “I think I know this man. He is the ambassador from Telmara.” Eldon turned to face Ariana as he spoke. Ariana’s gaze was fixed on the ambassador. She held her hands to her head, shaking her head from side to side.
“What’s wrong, Ari? Are you okay?” Eldon asked with concern. For the second time, he could see something strange happening around the princess. A rippling effect in the air. This time he could almost see something appear. He reached out to Ariana, taking her hand. Ariana’s breathing was rapid but began to slow, and the bending of the air vanished as Eldon enfolded her tightly in his arms.
“Mmm, not good, bad man, bad man. Eldon, hold me tight.” Eldon tightened his grip around Ariana
Meanwhile, in the throne room, a heated argument was taking place between the ambassador and the Queen. The ambassador stormed out of the throne room. Eldon only heard part of what was said because he was concerned for the princess. What he heard didn’t sound good. As far as he knew, there was a dispute between the two kingdoms, regarding a stretch of land bordering Mendona and Telmara. It seemed that things had gotten serious, and war was now possible
After a hard winter with rumours of war rife. Queen Constance summoned the Telmarain ambassador to try and reach a settlement between the two kingdoms. The ambassador stood before the Queen with a confident and overbearing arrogance. He glanced sideways to his right, where Ariana sat beside her mother.
“Ah, your Majesty, I see the princess is here today. It is good to finally meet you, your Highness.” The ambassador bowed in a perfunctory manner to the princess. “Are you here to learn statecraft from your mother?” He asked, his tone dripping with sarcasm.
“Mmm, bad man...” Ariana began. The Queen glanced at Ariana and raised a hand for her to be still.
The ambassador smiled derisively, putting a hand to his face to hide it. Queen Constance spotted it and regarded the ambassador with scorn. “There is one thing you might not know about the princess. Can you guess what that is, ambassador ?”
The ambassador gave a puzzled look and shrugged. “I have no idea, your Majesty. I’m sure you are going to tell me, though.”
The Queen bristled with anger, barely containing herself. “She is an excellent judge of character.” The Queen noted a look of fury briefly cross the ambassador’s face. Before he smoothed it over, returning to his smug self once again.
“Erm. Your Majesty, let’s get down to business. Neither of us wants war. King Hars has tasked me with offering you a generous amount of gold for the contested lands bordering our two kingdoms. It is his final offer. I suggest that you accept his offer. Your Majesty, we both know you can not win a war against us. You are outnumbered three to one.”
Queen Constance glared at the ambassador,” You suggest! You dare to tell me that I should accept a poultry amount of gold. No mention of the people that have lived and toiled on that land all their lives. That you would displace, and for what?. That land was granted to the kingdom of Medona by an ancient charter that remains in force today.”
The ambassador let the anger show on his face. “Then on your head be it, your Majesty. War it is.” He bowed stiffly, his anger still showing, as he turned and left.
Queen Constance turned to the captain of the palace guard, her features set in stone. “Better inform the generals to prepare for war, captain.”
The following day, Queen Constance sat in conference with her generals, leaders of governance and industry, and her treasurer. After several hours of negotiating, a course of action was decided between all assembled. As they started to leave to begin the necessary preparations, the Queen called the Head of the army to remain behind. “General Brenuk, tell me truthfully, what are our chances of winning this war?”
The general combed a hand through his greying hair and gave the Queen a cool look. “It’s not impossible, your Majesty. However, there is something about this whole business that troubles me.”
“You see it too, don’t you! It’s not the land that king Hars wants. Rather my crown. The land is just an excuse.”
The general smiled, “You are wise indeed, my Queen, like your father before you.”
“So what do you think king Hars will do?” The Queen asked
The general folded his hands behind his back as he considered, “Likely, he will send a small but sizable force to claim the contested land. While his main army will attack us here directly.”
The Queen nodded, “Just as I thought too. How long do we have before his army arrives?”
"“Hmm, I would say seven to ten days at most, your Majesty.”
Worry lines creasing the Queen's face. “I hope that will be enough time to prepare.”
“I will make sure it is enough, your Majesty,”
King Hars frowned, stroking his unkempt beard with one hand as he regarded his ambassador. “So that bitch Queen turned my offer down as expected,” he paused, laughing out loud. “Well, the gold was an insulting amount anyway. I knew she would turn it down.”
“I think she would have refused no matter how much you offered Sire.” The ambassador said.
“What? Never mind, it’s time for me to make the next move. You may leave for now.” King Hars looked distracted, giving the ambassador a dismissive wave.
The ambassador bowed deeply, “As you command, Sire.” He didn’t know what the king was planning, nor did he wish to know. As long as he maintained his wealth and position in power. He pitied Queen Constance and that half-wit princess if ever King Hars takes the throne of Mendona.
Queen Constance sat reading the scout’s report. As anticipated, King Hars had captured the disputed land to the south. There was nothing she could do about that, at least for now. She had to keep her army here to defend the city. The invaders could arrive any day now. Perhaps she could reclaim the territory if and when the war is won. King Hars’ army was close to three times larger than Mendona’s. Her generals assured her that only two-thirds of King Hars’ army was fully trained. The rest were raw recruits who were ill-equipped. Were as all Mendona’s forces were fully trained and equipped. Queen Constance counted on what her generals informed her of the enemy’s disposition. She also hoped King Hars would be his usual bullish self and underestimate her resolve. So far, he had been predictable in his moves.
She put the report down and called for the stewart to bring sir Gastile to her study. A short while later, Eldon entered and bowed before the Queen. She noted he was impeccably dressed as always and appeared calm and collected. “sir Gastile, I want you to stay here with Ariana. You must protect her with your own life if need be. If anything should happen...” The Queen let her words trail off as she fought to control her emotions.
Eldon swallowed hard, then put a hand to his heart. “I understand, your Majesty. On my life, I swear to protect the princess.”
The Queen nodded in silence for a long moment before speaking again. “When I heard about how you first met Ariana, I suspected your reasons. I want to apologise for that. You are a good man, sir Gastile, and I know the princess will be safe in your hands no matter what happens to me.”
Eldon bowed his head and then stared at the Queen with concern. “Your Majesty, won’t you be here as well?”
The Queen’s expression held a depth of regret and sadness. “I’ll be will be manning the city walls with my men. Now, if you will excuse me, I have much to prepare before tomorrow.”
Chapter Seven - Finale
Clara wrung her hands, distraught floods of tears streaming down her face. “Highness, you have to stay here where you will be safe,” she paused, looking to Eldon for support. “sir Gastile, can you not stop, her Highness? You were told to keep her here.”
Eldon sighed, torn between Ariana’s desperate pleas to take her to the city gates and his orders from the Queen to keep her out of harm’s way. “You know as well as I do, Clara, you can’t stop her Highness once she has made her mind up. If I don’t take her, she will sneak out alone and then what would happen. It is better if she goes with me so I can keep her safe.”
Clara wiped away tears. “You’ll come back, won’t you, Ari. You must come back. I want to keep being your maid.” She said, forsaking all protocol.
Ariana smiled whimsically, “Mmm. Clara, not worry. Ari return, not die. Eldon, keep Ari safe. Eldon protects Ari.”
Ariana and Eldon headed to the stables borrowing two horses from a startled stable master. Eldon thought he was going insane as he helped Ariana mount. “If we live through this, I will probably get courtmarshled for putting Ari in harm’s way.”
As they rode through the deserted city streets, Ariana turned to Eldon. “Eldon trusts Ari, yes?”
He didn’t know why but he did trust the pale princess. He felt there was something unusual about her from the moment they first met. Nothing to do with her affliction; there was just something special about her. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he felt there was a connection with what he had seen happening around her before. “I know you don’t do things without good reason. I trust you, princess.” He called out as they galloped onward. Reaching the gates, they dismounted and climbed the steps onto the ramparts.
“Ariana, what are you doing here?” The Queen called out in shocked dismay seeing the princess. She turned to Eldon. “sir Gastile, I thought I told...” The Queen stopped mid-sentence, alarmed as Ariana strode near the parapet’s edge. Eldon bowed apologetically and was about to ask for the Queen’s forbearance. When he also noticed Ariana step out onto the parapet.
“Ariana, no, come away from there.” The Queen, so distraught, collapsed onto her knees
“A shield, someone give me a shield,” Eldon called. A soldier handed him a shield, and Eldon stepped up beside Ariana, ready to shield her.
One of the invading soldiers spotted Ariana and pointed to her. The commander of the invading army turned to his captain, puzzled. “Who the devil is that fool up there,” he asked, bewildered.
“It’s a woman. I think it can only be the princess. They say she is not right in the head commander.”
“What! The half-wit, I’m not going to be responsible for killing a half-wit woman. What are they doing letting her loose on a battlefield?” He sighed, shrugging his shoulders. “Little princess, get down from there. If you don’t want to be harmed, hide behind your mother’s skirt tails.” He called to her, which brought titters of laughter from his men and lewd remarks
Arina ignored it all; unphased, she stared with idle curiosity at the invading army below, moving her head slowly from side to side. She studied the army closely. The different types that made up the invading army. The cavalry archers, pikemen, and footmen. She absorbed all this in detail and the shape of the army that they faced. Finally, she lifted her shoulders and sighed before speaking. “Mmm, you must go home now. I not want to hurt anyone.” She called down to them.
That brought more laughter from the invader with calls of, “Do you worst. Let’s see how you are going to stop us.”
Ariana didn’t answer. She raised her hands wide above her head, letting the world within her spill out into the real world. Like before, Eldon saw a rippling around Ariana in which vague, shadowy shapes seemed to come and go. This time everyone else could see it as it became more pronounced. A thin dark line appeared before her, gradually stretching along the city walls. The line became a slit growing wider, still becoming a black hole. Through that hole of inky darkness came nightmarish winged creatures. Gargoyles, harpies fire-breathing winged serpents, all manner of winged demons. They swooped down on the invaders. Giant troll-like creatures appeared on the ground in front of the invaders.
Chaos and panic broke out amongst the invading army. Fires started here and there as men were set on fire by the firebreathers. Many were torn limb from limb and eaten by the troll-like monsters. Some lifted from the ground and carried far to be dropped from a great height or tossed about like ragdolls. Even the horses were not spared. The invaders fought back bravely at first, killing some of the creatures. Any creature slain simply vanished as if it had never existed. Even more, poured through the rift. The commander realised Ariana was behind the monsters decimating his forces and ordered his archers to concentrate their fire to take down Ariana. Eldon stepped forward, holding the shield up in front of Ariana. An arrow tore through his arm. He winced in pain. Ariana, concerned, was momentarily distracted as she turned to him. The monsters began to disappear!
“I’m alright, Ari. Keep doing whatever it is you’re doing. Make sure you make them think twice about ever attacking us again.” Though in pain with blood running down his arm, he kept the shield up to protect Ariana.
Ariana turned back to the invader’s anger flashed in her eyes; she focused first on the archers. Soon, there were no archers. The defenders watched in complete shocked silence as the invading army turned and fled, chased relentlessly by the monsters until Ariana staggered. Eldon dropped the shield and caught Ariana in his arms. The creatures completely vanished into thin air. There was no celebration that the defenders had won or to see the invaders flee. Instead, a numb silence and shocked disbelief at the horror they had just witnessed.
Queen Constance regaining her composure, turned to her generals. “We won; that’s all that matters, and all the people need to know. Ensure that none here who witnessed this speaks of it to anyone, be it a friend or family... Understood?” She stated in a deadly serious tone.
Grim-faced, the generals all nodded in agreement. The Queen rounded up some soldiers to come with her and Eldon. “sir Eldon, find a cart to carry the princess in. Let’s do this as discretely as possible.
Later, at the palace, Queen Constance told Eldon to bring Ariana to her chambers. Eldon laid Ariana gently on the bed, concern etched on his face. The Queen glanced at Eldon, noting how pale he looked, blood still tricking down his arm. “You should see a physician and get that wound tended before you lose the use of that arm, sir Gastile.”
“What about Ari... I mean the princess.”
“I’ll have my own personal physician tend her. Now go, once you get that wound seen to and some rest. You can return that’s an order.”
Eldon left reluctantly, head bowed. He felt on the verge of exhaustion. He kept mulling it over in his head, trying to make sense of it. “Was that what Ari meant by keeping her secret?” Having seen one of the palace physicians tend his wound, he tried to get some rest but couldn’t. So he headed back to the Queen’s chambers.
Ariana was still unconscious and deathly pale, which worried Eldon. The Queen also looked concerned. Queen Constance put a hand on Eldon’s shoulder, “The physician says she is in a deep sleep right now and will wake up in her own time.”
Eldon sighed with a heavy heart, “That is good to hear, your Majesty. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop her from going to you and failing to protect her properly.”
The Queen nodded, considering a moment, “I know how stubborn my daughter can be. She is a handful to cope with, even at the best times. You didn’t fail her, Eldon. As promised, you risked your own life and limb to protect Ariana. You have my deepest gratitude, and I hope you will always act as you did today in Ariana’s best interest.”
Eldon bowed, staring at the Queen with a tired and dazed look, “Thank you, your Majesty.”
The Queen frowned, “But tell me, sir Eldon did you know what the princess could do before. I find it hard to believe even yet.”
“Eldon was silent a moment, “No, not precisely, your Majesty. A couple of times, I thought I saw something happening around the princess. There was never anything like what happened today. I thought maybe it was just my imagination.”
The Queen pursed, her lips frowning. “I see. How could it even be possible? Those creatures, where did they come from?”
Eldon was silent for a long moment, lost in thought, before finally speaking, “I have a theory about that, your Majesty.”
Queen Constance gave Eldon an enquiring look. “A theory? Let’s hear it.”
“Erm, Well, your Majesty, there were some things I found puzzling about the princess. When I first met her highness, she mentioned not wanting to hurt anyone. I have heard her say the same thing a few times since, when threatened or under duress. The other thing today, did you notice when the princess faltered, and when any of the creatures were slain, they just vanished?”
The Queen nodded, looking none the wiser. “Go on, what is the meaning of all this?”
“Well, your Majesty. You might think I’m insane, but I can only come up with one explanation. The princess conjured them up in her imagination, then brought them to life in the real world!”
The Queen gaped at Eldon, lost for words, her mouth dropping open. “So you are saying that’s why they vanished if slain. Or when Ariana was distracted and why they all vanished when Ariana collapsed!”
Just then, Ariana woke, opening her eyes to stare up at the two people she loved most in the world, hoping they wouldn’t hate or fear her for what she did. “Mother still loves Ari, not Fear Ari?”
The Queen swallowed hard, holding back the floods of tears threatening to overwhelm her, “Of course, mother still loves Ari, and what have I got to fear from you, my daughter. You, who wouldn’t even kill a fly under normal circumstances. You only did what you had to, and all our people are safe because of you.”
Ariana turned to Eldon, “Mmm, Eldon hates Ari?” she asked.
Eldon choked, finding it hard to speak, “No, Eldon loves Ariana.” He finally admitted.
Kings Hars banged his fist on the desk, glaring at his commander red-faced with fury. “What you want me to believe is that half-wit princess somehow conjured up demons from thin air and defeated the army single-handedly. What kind of nonsense is this? Is it even possible?”
“I’m sorry, Sire. If we had known beforehand, we would have been better prepared.” The commander answered. After seeing what he witnessed, he didn’t think it mattered how well prepared they were.
King Hars was silent for several minutes while the commander stood nervously waiting.”Hmm, there must be a way to get to the princess...” He paused, thinking. “She is still only human, weak and not very bright. Perhaps there is a way...”
To be continued...