The zenithal midday sun shone brilliantly over the garrison at Marshtop relentlessly bathing the tower guard’s rooftop position with sweltering, rising temperatures. The sentinel position – as it came to be called – was so named for the spectacular views it offered to any observer looking out across the marsh and beyond from its two-hundred-foot high, lofty, panoramic vantage point. The guard stationed there had just re-emerged from his hut after refreshing his goblet with water when he spotted three riders coming up over the brow of the Griven. His shout went out that three riders were approaching, and as they winded their way up the secret pathway heading for the main gates, he recognised the unmistakable form of the giant-like sergeant Duncante. The drawbridge was then lowered followed by the opening of the huge main doors. Duncante and his two comrades waited for the doors to open enough to allow them entry, they then passed through while joyously waving their arms in the air and proudly boasting to the gathered soldiers of their easy victory at the castle.
Princess Prittie had been literally biting her nails with worry as soon as the small army had left the garrison, and try as hard as she might, Mirvanda could not stem the tide of her jagged nerves to help her settle down and relax. The princess, in herself, truly appreciated Mirvanda’s motherly presence, keeping her company, assuring her, and everything she had been so caringly trying to do to assuage her fears, but she couldn’t take in anything that Mirvanda had been saying; the only voice she could hear was the voice of the raging doubt which noisily pounded around, screaming inside her head that she may never see d’Gravernaugh alive again – this was an unbearable thought to live with. She simply couldn’t expel this tumultuous thought from her mind. Amplifying to this doubt was the cold naked fact that both her parents were now dead leaving her orphaned and the sole heir to an empty throne; she felt isolated by this stark, lonely prospect. Also, came an undeniable feeling of shame for being so intermittently weak and vulnerable by the constant metronomic swing of her seemingly uncontrollable emotions, always threatening to entirely envelop her.
d’Gravernaugh, a second father, meant the world to the princess, she couldn’t imagine life without his strong guiding presence let alone taking up her position on the royal throne bereft of a well-known, trusted advisor. While submerged in these murky, despairing, waters of thought, pleasant memories from her childhood began to surface replacing the doom and gloom she was feeling and, with them, came a welcoming distraction.
She thought back to the earliest memories she had of d’Gravernaugh. She grew up in the care of her dead mother’s aide who, when the child princess learned how to talk, would call her mummy until the day came that she was old enough to know that she was not her real mother. And always, lurking behind the scenes, silent, ever watchful was d’Gravernaugh. Everywhere the little princess went he would faithfully follow in close proximity, and one day she actually asked her foster mother who he was and why he followed her about? She had been told at the time that he was her guardian, someone to look out for her and keep her safe, and not to be afraid of him; all little princess’s had them. The princess became comfortably accustomed to his permanent, slightly detached presence, so much so that one day when she had just turned five, she at last plucked up enough courage to go and speak to him. The princess smiled to herself as this memory surfaced and replayed itself in her mind’s eye.
“Sir! May I ask your name and what you are doing?” She had asked with perfect diction for someone so young, she put her hands behind her back while pivoting her torso from side to side but keeping her head still, shyly looking up at the towering d’Gravernaugh.
He had knelt down to her eye level and smiled while giving her what she was later to recognise as his trademark subtle wink; the little princess had giggled after seeing him do this.
“My Princess, I am Jules d’Gravernaugh, a friend to your father,” he had replied while over exaggerating a bow in a playful, friendly manner, causing her to giggle again.
“Jules dergrav’na? dugravner???”
“de-Grav-ern-nar,” he had phonetically corrected while laughing.
“Dee-Gravern-nar?” She had said, looking self-conscious in her anticipation of getting it wrong.
“Make the Dee sound smaller,” he had advised while making a squeezing gesture with his forefinger and thumb.
“de-Gravernow? deGravenaurgh? dugravner? de’Gravernow!? d’Gravernaugh!!” She had said in triumph while giving him a childish curtsey and looking pleased with herself.
“Very good my Princess Prittie, that is quite correct but you can call me Jules if you so wish.”
He then indicated with his head for her to offer her hand to him, this she did and he then took hold of it gently turning it over and placing a kiss on it. The little princess had watched in fascinated curiosity as her hand was kissed not really understanding what it meant.
“Jules?” She had asked tentatively.
“Yes, Princess Prittie.”
“Why do you follow me every day. My father tells me you are my guardian, why?”
He took both her hands into his and looked upon her kindly.
“Because My Princess – that is what best friends do for one another, they keep each other safe.”
“Are you my best friend then Jules? She had asked.
“Would you like me to be My Princess?” He said, raising an eyebrow questioningly, a knowing grin appeared on his face; he then gave her a light teasing, tickling poke in the ribs making her recoil and laugh.
The princess shuffled her tiny feet and her small smiling face turned a blush colour; she started to nervously chew on a fingernail then looked down at her feet in a moment of temporary childish abashment. Finally, she looked up again into d’Gravernaugh’s amused but questioning face.
“My father says that best friends last forever, and they would never leave you no matter what happens. Is that what you mean?”
d’Gravernaugh gently stroked the top of her hand as she instinctively held it out to him, he kissed it again then stood up tall and proud, drawing his sword.
“My Princess Prittie,” came his firm but sincere voice. “I do solemnly swear by all that is fair in the lands of Gillion that I will ever be at your side. May death find me swiftly, but surely, if ever I break my vow of friendship.”
He knelt down on one knee and balanced his sword across his outstretched hands and bowed; he lifted his head and winked at her and then gestured with his eyes for her to touch the sword. The princess looked at him and the sword with all the dignity that a five-year-old little girl could muster. She reached out her hand and laid it on his sword.
“I accept your friendship Jules d’Gravernaugh,” she said, matter of factly, looking childishly prudish but obviously enjoying the moment and having playful fun. “Please stand – my friend.”
He did as she asked and replaced his sword back in its sheath.
“Jules?” She asked, frowning up at him.
“Yes, My Princess.”
“Does that mean you will teach me how to ride a horse?”……………
……………”My Lady. Princess Prittie. My Lady! Please come quickly. My Lady!”
Somewhere amidst her dreamy reverie the princess heard another voice, a different voice, a voice that did not belong inside the memory she was reliving, calling her name, calling her back to the present. As the past gently melted away inside her head the voice became louder, clearer, coming into focus, she turned round and looked into the eyes of Mirvanda who was carefully shaking her by the shoulders.
“My Lady! Come. Come quickly. There is a commotion downstairs in the courtyard, I think some soldiers have returned. Come!”
Mirvanda grabbed her by the hand, making her stand up. The princess, as if coming out from a deep trance like state, looked deep into Mirvanda’s eyes as the dawn of realisation to what she had just told her spread across her face; it caused an involuntary tightening up of her already tense, nervous stomach. Hand in hand, they both raced out from the bed chamber and headed down to the courtyard; the guards at the door, taken by surprise, gathered their wits and gave chase.
The princess and Mirvanda suddenly burst out from the courtyard doors and raced toward a noisy crowd of soldiers that had gathered around three riderless horses standing near the main entrance. As they came upon them they saw the three riders all engaged in a manic, excited conversation with one another, and amongst the crowd the towering form of sergeant Duncante was gesturing wildly with his huge arms, recounting events at the castle to his men. He stopped as he spotted the princess approaching, she had a terrified look on her face.
“Sergeant Duncante. What news have you? Where are the others?” she asked, wide eyed, and trying to maintain her self composure.
“My Lady!” Boomed Duncante as he knelt down before her. “I bring good tidings on this day. The enemy has been vanquished from the castle. We have taken back what is ours.”
A loud cheer went out again by all gathered.
The princess looked about her bewilderedly, not sure what it all meant.
“But where is lord d’Gravernaugh? The other men?” she hesitantly asked, as if an unwanted truth she did not want to hear would result; she held onto Mirvanda’s hand for unspoken reassurance. Mirvanda caressed her shoulder with her other hand to comfort her while looking as equally worried.
“Have no fear My Lady he is safe! He remains at the castle to organise the clearing up operation, there is much that needs doing there before your return. He also instructed me to personally give you this message: I told you so!”
The princess almost collasped out of relief. Mirvanda helped to steady her and kissed her on the forehead.
“See My Lady – all that worry over nothing,” said Mirvanda, while hiding her own relief over the knowledge that d’Gravernaugh was safe. The princess noticed a sudden, almost hidden glint in Mirvand’a eyes as she spoke, concealing a deeper truth she was not yet privy to; Mirvanda lowered her eyes under the scrutiny of the princess’s.
“And what of my army, Sergeant?” asked the Princess, turning to face him.
“We have casualties My Lady but I am glad to report no deaths,” he answered.
“Thank goodness for that,” exclaimed the princess, who, inwardly and emotionally, was not yet equipped to deal with the eventuality of death through war – especially one that she had endorsed under advisement; she felt greatly relieved by this news.
“My Lady. Lord d’Gravernaugh’s battle strategy made it seem easy and effortless for our own part, he is truly a lord above all other lords,” Duncante proudly stated.
“Indeed, Sergeant,” agreed the princess while casting a furtive glance at Mirvanda and noting that she still had her head lowered.
“My Lady,” said Duncante who now stood up after being given an unspoken prompt by the princess. “There is another matter to attend to that only you can decide upon.”
“Oh! And what is that may I ask,” she said, looking quizzically at him.
“My Lady, I left my post eager to join in the battle at the castle, I did not request your leave to do so but sought lord d’Gravernaugh’s in your stead. I stand awaiting your judgement.”
The princess laughed, more out of surprise than anything else at the unexpected, trivial – so it seemed to her – confession by Duncante.
“Sergeant. If lord d’Gravernaugh deemed you worthy to leave your post to attend him in battle, then I have no judgement to decide upon. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, but you should worry more about the running of this garrison to which you have so victoriously returned to. Please go about your duties as usual. We will not speak of it again.”
The princess raised an eyebrow in humour as she gave her decision to the humbled sergeant.
“My Lady, I thank you. Never has there been a lady so fair, so kind, so gentle and understanding as My Queen who now stands before me.” He gave a bow then went about his business.
The princess watched him go, his words still sounding in her head. As he disappeared through the courtyard doors, the princess turned to Mirvanda.
“Come, Mirvanda. We need to have a conversation,” she said, knowingly.
Mirvanda nodded and gracefully followed her back to the bed chamber.
* * *
d’Gravernaugh squinted while looking at the early evening sun as it slowly dropped lower in the sky, there was but a few more hours left until darkness would fall. Much had been accomplished through the small hours of the afternoon and everything that needed attending to in urgency had been done leaving a few minor details left over; it was these that were now getting the soldiers undivided attention. Earlier, when the clean-up began, all the dead carcasses of the demonic enemy had been unceremoniously piled up into a large heap, and then a fire was set at the base kindled by wood and oil. All that now remained or suggested that a huge fire had been lit at all was the smouldering, smoking embers, of a foul-smelling black heap of ash.
The dead king’s mutilated body had also been found at the foot of the castle gates amongst the other corpses of his guards. The king’s body was carefully picked up and carried to the castle crypts, he was then respectfully arranged in a supine position on a stone slab with his arms crossed upon his chest; his sword placed lengthways underneath, he was then covered with a sheet bearing the royal insignia. Here he would lay and remain in cold storage until such times when a window of opportunity presented itself so he could properly take his place of rest next to his ancestors. The bodies of the dead soldiers and staff were similarly placed into the castle crypts all awaiting proper, dignified, ritualised burial ceremonies in accordance with southern Gillion’s practices for the honoured dead.
The ordeal of clearing away the dead was a grim task for all concerned, but no one complained or made attempts to shrink away from a duty that needed to be done. Also, d’Gravernaugh wouldn’t ask his men to do anything that he himself was not prepared to do and thus he helped to carry the dead into the castle vaults. By mid-afternoon the dead had all been removed from the field of battle including the carcasses of the dead horses which were dragged into another heap for immediate burning.
While the dead were being removed from the castle grounds, d’Gravernaugh had ordered a precautionary mounted guard consisting of fifty riders to patrol the castle perimeters save that they be caught unawares and attacked; no enemy was spotted near or far. A large search party had been assembled to enter the castle and thoroughly look under every nook and cranny for the slim chance that survivors might be found and, to begin clearing up any mess they might find to make everything inside neat and orderly once again. He also allotted the task of repairing the castle gates to a number of his soldiers which he knew possessed good carpentry skills.
As the afternoon progressed, everything slowly but surely came together, and amongst all the doom and gloom of the aftermath came the good news that a number of survivors had been discovered hiding in locked rooms in quieter corners within the castle. The survivors, all courtesans, and some children, had been instructed by their king to hide themselves away during the attack until it was safe to come out, they had been cowering in a storeroom behind a sturdy door with absolutely no idea what was going on or what had happened. It was only when they heard shouts coming from the searching party of soldiers that they emerged into the open thankful that their salvation was upon them. They were all unharmed but in need of sustenance, so some of the soldiers escorted them down to the kitchens to find food after which, the courtesans then offered to prepare something for their rescuing army; this offer was gratefully taken up by the soldiers at hand and, on behalf of their working comrades outside.
This news was then relayed outside to d’Gravernaugh who, although still busy with tasking, welcomed the good news and ordered the word to be sent out to all his men that a meal was being prepared for them all. Two hours later, the sun had dropped lower in the early evening sky and twilight began to descend casting a red glow across the skies above. All the targeted work had been completed or as completed as it could be in so short a time and, once word had been sent out that supper was ready, d’Gravernaugh called back the perimeter guard to return to the castle grounds.
The soldiers ate hungrily after their days toll but were not allowed to imbibe any of the wine from the cellars; only water or herbal teas were on offer. After everyone had been fed, d’Gravernaugh organised the night watch. He placed all the archers up on the ramparts covering all approaches to the castle, from all angles, with instruction to form pairs and take turns to sleep, he placed a small unit just inside the gates with similar instructions to those he gave the archers. He then chose forty men to patrol inside the castle itself with another forty who he ordered to take rest then replace them in four hours time. He had all the horses taken to the stables with a compliment of soldiers to tend to them. He had all the oil lamps and torches lit so that the castle came back to life and appeared homely again. He told everyone else with nothing to do to either rest or keep their comrades company; he left it to them to decide.
d’Gravernaugh headed for the ramparts and joined the gathering archers, he would sleep when tiredness won over wakefulness, but that would be later and not now. He stared out across the grounds from the height of the defensive rampart, the sun had all but disappeared and darkness had finally come. He pondered as to what the princess might be doing or feeling right now, wondering if she was holding herself together after another challenging day of mixed emotions. Whatever she was feeling at this time he took comfort from the fact that Mirvanda, the woman he loved, the woman he trusted and once proposed to, the woman and a married life he passed over to fulfil an oath he swore to king Mestian, watched over his princess Pretty, keeping her company. He drew out his sword and held it aloft then shouted in defiance to any that might be listening.
“Never. Never again will this castle be taken by any foreigner, man, or beast! As long as the blood of life courses through my veins, this I do solemnly swear.”
He put his sword back into its sheath and began walking around the rampart. The archers looked on in wonderment and awe by the power and sincerity that they had just unexpectedly heard unleashed in his voice.
Darkness gave no reply.