They had now covered some four miles in their ten-mile trek toward Marshtop, they had not come across any enemy – human or otherwise, the only other signs of life came from the singing from birds high above in the trees of the forest which they were now silently passing through. The princess no longer resembled the royal personage she was, her clothes like rags, her hair matted with dirt and mud and generally looking very unkempt; if any wayfarers had saw her, she would have appeared to them as a wandering vagrant, a lowly one at that. Her guard bade her walk at the front once again so she would be shielded from any attack from behind. As they proceeded through the forest the guard was continually scanning the area in front and behind, sword at the ready, but still there were only birds to be heard.
The day was glorious, clear and bright with just a whisp of breeze betrayed only by the gentle swaying of the treetops. Scattered shafts of sunlight penetrated to the forest floor here and there and seemed to light the way in front of them forming a shimmering pathway. The princess suddenly stumbled on a tree root sticking up out of the ground, the guard, ever aware, broke her fall in time and she regained her balance and composure. The princess had felt frail in his grip when he held her arm for support. He knew she needed rest, and soon.
“My Queen,” he hissed, looking about him. “You need to rest a while.”
The princess looked into his eyes trying to appear strong and brave, but nodded in obvious agreement.
“Is it safe to do so,” she whispered.
“It will be safer in here rather than the clearing half a mile up ahead,” he answered softly. “We are about to enter the Griven, the three-mile valley leading to the marshes. It is open country and we must cross it with as much speed as we can muster.”
“Very well,” she replied in a lowered voice. “Do we stop right here?”
The guard looked around and pointed at a dense group of trees and shepherded them both toward it. The trees would give good cover from all sides; they would be well hidden from any prying eyes. They both settled down resting their backs up against a pair of trees situated close together. The guard reached for his leather water pouch and handed it to the princess and gestured to her to drink from it; she did so in greedy gulps while the guard watched in silence.
The princess stopped drinking as if out of guilt and handed the pouch back to the guard, but he waved her on with a slight nodded gesture to continue drinking.
“Take as much as you need my Queen, there is another water hole at the end of the Griven, I can refill it there.”
The princess shook her head.
“Oh come now Jules, you must be as parched as I am,” she said, rather too loudly.
She again offered the pouch as the guard gestured for her to talk softer; he declined her offer.
“My thirst is not as important as yours my Queen, I can wait,” he said, shaking his head. “Besides, you will need all your strength for the next part of our journey.”
The princess then shook her head in defiance, but smiled with an air of gentle superiority.
“Jules, if I am your queen, then you will do as I bid you to do. Drink!”
She held out the pouch until he accepted it from her and took a small mouthful. She watched to make sure he did so then smiled at her own small victory.
“There. That wasn’t too difficult now was it,” she enquired.
The guard handed the pouch back and nodded a bow.
There followed several minutes of silence between them as they both gathered their thoughts and reflections of the day so far. The princess drank in small sips from the pouch while looking deep in thought. The sun was high above them heralding midday; all about the forest nothing stirred and no sound was heard but the relentless songs of birds. The air, although stuffy, had a fresh, scented smell to it making for a restful, pleasant atmosphere. It was the princess who was first to break the silence.
“Jules?” she said, looking enquiringly at him.
“My Queen?” he responded, looking alert.
The princess looked at the ground as if hesitant, she then looked up to meet his eyes.
“My father never told me. . .he never ever explained about those things, you know, those creatures. He always said that I didn’t need to know about such things just so long as I was protected from them. Where do they come from and why?”
The guard gave her a hard stare.
“My Queen, I do not think this is the time or place to talk of such things.”
The princess gave a pathetic laugh.
“Does it really matter, do you think?” she said, in a wavering voice. “We might both be dead by the end of the day and I would like to know who my assailants are and what they are doing here in our lands. . .what do they want? Please tell me Jules.”
The guard breathed a heavy sigh.
“Very well my Queen, as you so wish.”
“Oh, and Jules,” she cut in. “I am not a queen yet, I am still Prittie, or Pretty, as you prefer to say it, so please can we drop the queen for now?”
The guard laughed.
“As you wish my Princess Pretty.”
The guard rose to his feet, standing silently as a statue, only moving his head as he surveyed the area. Having satisfied himself that nothing had changed and all was safe, he sat back down again and resumed his position against the tree.
The princess gave a soft smile and patiently waited to hear what he had to tell her.
“It all started four generations back with your great grandfather, Emullien. There was a great war that at the time was spreading and heading here to Gillion. The invaders were pillaging everything in their path, they never took prisoners but murdered all peoples in cold blood with no just cause. The invaders, the Mekue, were a savage race and instilled fear in all but the very brave, they wanted total dominance throughout the lands from here to the black mountains which is thought to be where they came from.”
“Emullien was a very strong and charismatic king. He managed to form and lead a huge twenty-thousand-man army made up of all the four separate kingdoms in Gillion and halt the progress of the marauding Mekue. A massive, heroic battle ensued that lasted for three days and three nights until their leader, Hronnic, was eventually defeated and slain by none other than Emullien himself. The battle was like no other ever seen before, and your great grandfather, thereafter, became a living legend.”
“The survivors of the invading army were given one week to leave Gillion and never return or suffer pain of death. It was then that an elderly woman, thought to be a sorceress, stepped forth from the ranks of the invaders. She laid down a warning to Emullien that the king’s, children’s, children, would be cursed and that a black plague will fall upon them. She also told him that the only way to break the curse was to kill the children in question by way of a ritual slaughter. At the time she was laughed at by Emullien. She left, never to be seen or heard of again.”
“The kingdoms of Gillion prospered and enjoyed many long years of peace, the Mekue was never seen again and most folk forgot all about the curse until the day that you were born. It was then that the creatures started to appear. No one knows where they came from, they just sprang out of nowhere and killed anyone unfortunate to cross their path. They slowly grew in number and fast did fear spread throughout the kingdoms until folk were scared to travel anywhere for fear of being attacked.”
“With this fear came the inevitable finger pointing at your father, they blamed him and your ancestors for the plague of demons that now had a foothold in the kingdoms; they all called for your immediate death. They said it would be the only way to bring security back to our lands. Your father naturally refused and kindly reminded the other three kingdoms that everyone took part in the great battle from whence, after victory, the curse had originated. It was soon after he said this: that your mother was assassinated by, as yet, unknown parties. Your father broke all ties with the three kingdoms purely from suspicion claiming them to be all capable of the murder of your mother. It has been this way ever since and here we are today.”
The princess looked stunned and quite speechless after hearing such a tale, now all the questions she had ever wanted to ask had been answered in one concise tale.
“I’m sorry my Princess,” he said, cautiously. “I am sorry to be the one to tell you the truth about your mother’s death.”
She made to speak but only her mouth moved until she finally found her voice again.
“No, no…that’s quite alright Jules,” she said, dreamily. “I always wondered about that and everything else mind you, thank you for being honest with me.”
“You do understand why your father would never tell you any of it don’t you, Princess Pretty?”
“Yes I do now, I understand completely. Such a burden, such a, such a terrible ….?”
She broke off mid sentence as tears started to flow down her cheeks. She suddenly stood up, wiping her face with a tattered sleeve of her dress and composed herself. She took in a deep breath and confidently exhaled it.
“Are you well my Princess?” enquired the guard, looking concerned.
“Yes, yes, I will be fine thank you,” she said with an authoritative tone that surprised the guard.
“We should be going, don’t you think?” she asked.
The guard stood up and acknowledged.
“Yes we should continue on, we need to reach marsh top by nightfall. Are you sure you are all right my princess?” he asked, looking at her searchingly.
“Jules, I am fine,” she confirmed. “It is a very empowering thing to finally know the truth about something that has been hidden from you all your life. Do not concern yourself, I am fit enough to continue.”
They rounded up their things and started off once again – the Princess leading, the guard, sword at the ready, behind. They didn’t speak, save only the guard when he had to direct the princess in which path to tread. Eventually, the trees started to thin out, the valley was looming ahead of them waiting in silence for their passing. They came upon the last tree of the forest and before them now was a grassy ledge, and beyond that stood the vast Griven valley. The princess halted at the ledge and turned to face the guard, he came up alongside her and stared out across the sea of green, taking in the entire vista. There was a small drop down at the foot of the valley which the guard negotiated easily, he then reached out his arms and caught the princess as she jumped down to join him.
The mid-afternoon sun was strong, the guard brought up his hand to shield his eyes, he turned to the princess.
“Shall we my Princess?” he asked, looking questioningly at her.
“Yes…..so we shall,” she replied, and together they both strode forward into the Griven valley.