Once upon a time, in a land far from where I write to you, existed two kingdoms headed by two great rulers. The kingdoms of Elgany and Navaria bordered on each other. Elgany, a kingdom of wealth and culture lay to the temperate south. The kingdom of Navaria, a land of harsh landscape and strong people lay to the cold north.
King Roman of Navaria and King Benjamin of Elgany were the closest of allies and the greatest of friends. Benjamin’s queen, Manon, was the sister in law to Roman’s cousin which made them relations of sorts. In all of their years as friends King Roman’s family had never hosted Benjamin at their home, Castle Kroestov. Benjamin rarely left Mardaux Palace in Elgany so it came as something of a surprise when Roman received a letter from him stating that his arrival in Navaria was imminent.
“So what is the king like?” Roman’s wife, Francesca, had asked having never met Benjamin.
Roman smiled as he considered the thousand adjectives that would befit his friend. Burly, friendly, loud, excitable; all of them would not suffice. Benjamin had an overwhelming presence. He treated all as though they were his family. His visit made for an unexpected delight.
Roman waited in the entrance of Castle Kroestov as the convoy of golden carriages carrying the pale blue and yellow flags of Elgany drew nearer. The Navarian king was accompanied by his two sons, James the elder and Edward the younger. Both of them were in the throws of early adolescence. The king’s only daughter, Charlotte, waited at her father’s side. She was unsure of what to expect.
The Navarian guards – dressed in the black and red of their own flag – opened the doors to allow entry for their regal visitors. In a parade of noise and commotion, King Benjamin came bounding in. His large smile wide and bright. He abstained from respectful bows to his fellow king and instead gripped Roman in a tight embrace. Behind Benjamin marched a very pretty queen with long golden hair. Her neck was completely covered in glittering pearls. Her fingers were laced with diamonds. She wore a gown of rich purple with emeralds sown into the bodice. Queen Manon was a great deal younger than her husband. She was a youthful woman who shone radiant amongst the finery. Four girls ushered in behind their mother in order of height. Behind them a nanny carried Ben’s only son, the infant Prince Julian.
“You brought the whole family!” Roman cheered. “I’m so happy to see you all.”
Manon gave a polite curtsey to the Navarian king. Her daughters followed suit.
Benjamin approached Edward and tousled his ebony curls. “Your sons are grown now Roman. What strong young men they are.” He drew a small sickle bladed dagger from the pocket of his black travelling cloak. The handle was studded with diamonds. He handed it to the young prince.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” said Edward in receipt to the gift. His eyes were drawn to the beautiful weapon.
“Ben, you shouldn’t have,” Roman interceded.
“Nonsense! Every well bred boy in Elgany has one, Eddy should too,” said Benjamin. He smiled at Edward before turning his attention to James. “And you must be James.” This time he shook the boy’s hand with reserved respect. “Future ruler of this wonderful land.” He drew a golden seal with the emblem of Elgany etched on it from his other pocket. “This jewel has never left the confines of Mardaux. Keep it safe.”
James shook his head. “Your Majesty is too generous. I cannot accept this.”
Benjamin shrugged his shoulders. “Of course you can. It is mine to gift as I please. Perhaps when you are king you will remember this and look to Elgany with kindness. Long may the friendship between our two kingdoms continue.”
Before any more objections could be made, Benjamin lifted Princess Charlotte into his arms. A little girl of fewer years than her brothers, Charlotte giggled as she was spun around like a ragdoll and placed on Benjamin’s shoulders. “I have always had a keen eye for precious things and I think I may have found the most precious of them all!”
Roman laughed, “My little princess is not for sale.”
“Pity,” was Benjamin’s retort. He leaned forward still carrying the child on his shoulders he kissed Francesca on both cheeks. “My belle, introductions are not necessary for you. Roman speaks of you so often I feel I know you as well as I would my own sister.”
Francesca curtseyed. “I could say very much the same. It is a pleasure to have you here with us.”
Roman drew Benjamin aside. He lowered his voice to a more solemn tone. “I am pleased that you have come to visit us but I must ask, is there another purpose?”
Benjamin’s large brown eyes clouded with solemnity much unlike him. He drew Charlotte from his shoulders and down his back. “We should speak alone.” He addressed the child, “Charlotte, my Madeleine would very much like to meet you. Will you show her around?”
At the king’s request, Charlotte made to introduce herself to the Elganite princesses.
“So what is wrong?” Roman asked.
“What I have to tell you is of grave importance,” Benjamin began. “My kingdom is in danger.”
As Roman and Benjamin drew away to talk alone, Manon left her ladies in waiting behind and was escorted by Francesca to a study. It was a cerebral room, filled with polished mahogany furniture and shelves filled with books. A fire was lit. The cold snow and icy winds outside contrasted the cosy warmth of the study. It was a room that Francesca kept exclusively for her own use. Even the servants of the castle dared not to enter.
“You have a beautiful home, Your Majesty,” Manon commented with politeness.
“It’s draughty and very grey but it is home. Not as lovely as Mardaux I hear.”
Manon smiled coyly. “My husband enjoys the finer things.”
Francesca poured them a glass of deep red wine each in crystal goblets. Like al of her children, she had raven hair and a pale complexion. She was a striking woman with the brightest blue eyes.
“You like the finer things too from what I see hanging around your neck,” Francesca commented, handing a glass to the Elganite queen.
Manon clasped the glass in both hands. She shied away from eye contact with Francesca. “I’m glad I have the opportunity to speak to you alone.”
Francesca seated herself on the sofa opposite. She lay one arm over the back, the other holding her wine. “Really?” she enquired. “Might I ask why?”
Manon took a deep breath. “There is talk, rumours of what you are capable of.” Francesca narrowed her gaze. She already knew what Manon referred to but she wanted to draw it from her like venom from a snake bite. “They say you are a witch of tremendous power.”
Francesca betrayed no emotion. “The say a lot of things,” she answered.
“My little boy, Julien, is a sick infant. Benjamin has hopes of him succeeding him one day but I fear he won’t see his next birthday.”
“Isn’t that what doctors are for?” Francesca dismissed.
“We’ve had the best doctors that money can buy. It is no use. Please, Your Majesty, if the rumours are true you can help my little Prince Julien.”
Francesca darted a glance at the door before leaning forward. “My twin, who is no longer with us, was also named Julien. He would not have liked to see any suffering in his name sake. I will help your little boy but there is something you have to do.”
“Anything! I am at your mercy. No price is too great.”
Francesca raised her hand to hush her. “Firstly, calm yourself down. I can’t have anyone overhear what I am about to do. Secondly, my husband can know nothing of this. He would worry that his people wouldn’t look too kindly on witchcraft, no matter its intention.”
Manon breathed a sigh of relief. “I am eternally in your debt. Your Majesty is too kind.”
Francesca shook her head. “Hold your applause,” she said. “There is a great penalty attached to giving life, even to one so small. It can’t be conjured from nowhere. It has to be taken from something.”
Manon wiped the tear that was forming in the corner of her eye. “I’ll pay with my own life.”
Francesca stood. She went to a cabinet by the window in an almost gliding step. From a drawer she removed a straw figure in the crude shape of a person. “I can see to it that your little boy never falls to ill health. It can’t come from a parent because that is where the life springs.”
Manon’s upset was beginning to grow. “What can I do?”
Francesca clasped the poppet tightly in her right hand. “If your baby boy means so much to you, choose one of your daughters to be replaced.”
Princess Madeleine of Elgany, the youngest of Benjamin’s daughters was making a game of hiding and seeking with Princess Charlotte of Navaria. Charlotte had the advantage of knowing Castle Kroestov as home so she hid and Madeleine went in search of her. Madeleine’s excitement for the game grew when she wandered into the kitchens and found Charlotte stowed away underneath one of the counters. Charlotte cried out and ran, almost knocking the chef onto his backside. Madeleine chased after her, both girls alight with laughter.
The Elgany princess lost her Navarian counterpart somewhere along the third floor so she was searching from room to room. Her heart beating a little faster with the thrill and anticipation of the game. One of the doors lay ajar. Madeleine assumed Charlotte had hid in there so she boldly charged inside. She almost crashed into a man larger in presence than her father. He wore a military uniform but not like that of the guards at the entrance of the castle. He was an officer.
“And who might you be?” he asked. His grin stretching in maliciousness from ear to ear. His mouth filled with pearly white teeth.
Madeleine hesitated. She stepped back towards the doorway. “I’m looking for Her Highness, Princess Charlotte.”
The officer bore down on her like the jaws of a great monster. “Little girls shouldn’t be in here,” he said. His voice was husky but polite with underlying tones of danger.
Madeleine’s eyes were drawn to a table behind him. Spread across it was a map of Navaria with red pins in ever widening circles around Castle Kroestov. The officer noticed her gaze and challenged it. Still smiling his dark eyes blazed like a fierce forest predator. The sheepskin fur forming part of his uniform seeming much too soft for such a marauding creature.
“Drenisov?” barked the little Princess Charlotte.
The officer – Drenisov – looked past Madeleine to the Navarian princess and offered her a most congenial bow. “Your Highness, this young lady appeared to be lost. I was merely directing her onto the proper path.” He gracefully moved back towards the table and folded the map away.
“This young lady is Her Highness, Princess Madeleine. She is also my friend. You will show her the proper respect.” Charlotte took Madeleine’s hand and pulled her away. Drenisov watched them with a growl until they were out of the line of view before closing the door and locking it.
Benjamin paced the room. Roman watched his restlessness from an armchair by the fire. At the Navarian king’s request they had been left alone.
“There are whispers of my people overthrowing me. They no longer believe in my right as a ruler granted to me from the Lords above,” Benjamin was explaining.
“How can you be so certain?” Roman asked.
Benjamin shook his head. “My life has been in danger for some time. I can’t even trust my own people. They are looking for my head.”
“I never thought I would see the day where a rebellion would rise in Elgany.” King Roman was flabbergasted. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Benjamin affixed his usual light air again. “My Minister, Antoinie Lubek, has been a tremendous help. He is keeping the people appeased until we can find the source of this upset.”
“Navaria will always be your friend and ally,” Roman assured him.
Benjamin gripped his arm. “I don’t fear for myself. As a King my life has always been forfeit to a higher purpose. It is my young boy Julien that warrants my concern. Should anything happen to me they will make an example of him as heir to my throne. They will tear him apart or worse, they will make him a puppet to their whims.” Roman listened to his friends concerns with silent horror. “The reason I came here – aside from seeing your lovely home – was to ask you a personal favour.”
Roman urged him to continue. “Should there be an uprising in Elgany, will you provide safe passage and refuge for Julien?”
“Of course,” said Roman immediately without having to give any thought to the matter.
“I don’t ask you this as a king and ally. I ask you this as a friend and a father.”
Roman had already decided. He too had a strong paternal instinct. Roman’s first dedication was to his children. This was a bond that he and Benjamin shared. “Of course I will assure that Julien is safe here but what about you? What about your girls?”
Benjamin itched his nose like he did most often when he was feeling nervous. “Nothing is certain yet. I just want to be cautious. I have to return to Elgany. If there is to be a revolution then my leaving will only fan the flames. My girls will be safe enough. Manon can take them as far as Hagen Moor if she needs to and they will not be disturbed. They will be of no consequence to the rebels. However, they will bay for Julien’s blood and so I need to know he will be somewhere he can be protected until he is old enough to return to Elgany and resume his throne.”
“You needn’t fear. For as long as I live your family will always be kept safe…”
Princess Marie, the eldest of King Benjamin’s children, had taken quite a shine to Prince James of Navaria. She had watched as he finished talking with his young brother and began to make his way to the third floor. She followed him in the hope of being able to elicit a conversation. Marie was blossoming into a beautiful young woman. As an Elganite of noble birth she took great pride in her appearance. She was dressed often in pale blue as it matched the soft tone of her eyes and lemon because it highlighted the warmth of her golden tresses. She watched as James made his way along a long corridor on the third floor engrossed in his own thoughts. He quickly turned, having forgotten something and made his way back towards her. Marie turned to the painting on the wall at her side. She focused on the artists attention to detail and the brush strokes that had been given so much thought. She couldn’t really be sure of what she was looking at because she felt James close beside her. Her heart began to beat a little faster.
“Are you lost?” James asked politely.
Marie turned to him, hoping she seemed nonchalant. “I was just admiring this painting. There is so much beautiful art work around the castle. It must be thrilling to be able to look upon it every day.”
James too looked at the painting. It was an image of Castle Kroestov painted generations previous to theirs. “Well as thrilling as it can be looking at a picture of a the castle every day whilst in that castle everyday …” Marie shied away. James laughed. “I’m sure Mardaux Palace must be brimming with art work.”
“It is but the art there seems so … superficial. When there is so much of it, it begins to become less special. What you have here is genuine.”
Prince James had a handsome smile. He had the finely sculpted features of his mother and the charm of his father. His raven hair was thick and well presented. He was not overly indulged in jewels or finery. His simple refinement echoed the strength of his people. “I’m very glad you like it. You are Princess Marie aren’t you?”
Marie offered a polite curtsey. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said.
James took her hand and kissed it. “The pleasure is all mine I assure you.” Marie bowed her head and smiled coyly. “It is getting a little stuffy in here. I was going to walk in the gardens for a little while. Would you like to join me?”
Marie became giddy. “I would love to.”
The snow had ceased. The sun sat high in the sky as James and Marie made their way through the well tended gardens of Castle Kroestov. They saw little snow in the South so Marie was enjoying the glittering sparkle that lay across the deep red of the rose bushes.
They were discussing matters that brought them far from their regal parentage.
“I enjoy sailing,” Marie was explaining. “I have my own little boat which I take up and down the Chessy River.”
James was intrigued. He had heard much of the Elganite way of life but had never witnessed it first hand. “I was on a boat once when I was a small child. The rocking motions made me sick the entire time. I have never been back on one since. My little sister, Charlotte, loves boats. So what is your boat’s name?”
“Promise you won’t laugh?”
James raised his hands. “I promise…”
“Alice,” Marie admitted.
James shrugged his shoulders. “That’s a fine name for a boat.”
Marie explained, “I had an invisible friend as a child. We went on all sorts of adventures. The boat is named after her.”
James chuckled. “Now that is just adorable.”
Marie laughed too. She slapped James’ arm playfully. “I warned you it was silly.”
James shook his head. “Not at all. I’m sure Alice is the finest vessel in all of Elgany.”
As they made their way to the furtherest end of the gardens they passed a large crooked tree. It was old and withered. Amidst the winter splendour the crooked tree stood brazenly against the beauty. It was not inviting, it was not life giving. The withered hands of the branches reached out like it threatened to throttle passers by.
Marie began to feel dizzy. James noticed her steps lurch so he gripped her arm. “I’m feeling a little faint,” she said.
“Do you want to sit down?” James asked with genuine concern.
“No I will be fine. It will pass.”
Marie’s delicate frame became a dead weight. With a sudden pull she slipped from James’ grasp and tumbled at the foot of the crooked tree. Blood spilled from her mouth onto the fresh white snow. She was gone. The doctors claimed her heart had failed her as though it had been crushed under a vice-like grip. Francesca watched from the window as attendants and a distraught king and queen saw to their daughter.
Fear, panic and horror would quickly spread and the two great kingdoms of Navaria and Elgany would fall to ruins.
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