Throughout the night, Darby could not find sleep. Instead her thoughts turned to the stories her grandmother told her. The pain caused by the West kingdom had been unbearable then, and after speaking to some of the servants in the castle, there were still constant threats from the West. Riada had been living in peace for the thirty-six plus years since her grandmother and her father had left this place. The statue of Analee still stood, a sentinel against danger and all that which was damaging. In fact, Riada had fared better than the East Kingdom whose outlying areas were poor and rarely looked after. They had been subject to more frequent raids, while no one from the West Kingdom dared enter if they intended harm.
Josanu, Analee’s lover still reigned and it was said that he visited her daily, taking the trek from the castle by himself to see the woman he loved. He was aging now, one of the servants, whose sister had married a nice farmer in a village on the border of Riada and the East, said. Her sister had gone to market in the heart of the kingdom and had seen the aging king walk with a cane to the statue of his beloved. It was said that he discussed all of the problems of the kingdom with her, even though she never spoke back. But the story was well known, and all the children knew it, which would hopefully ensure the continuation of Analee’s bravery.
But here, in the East Kingdom, the king still mourned the loss of his brother, his first love, Cleo, and his wife and son. It made him bitter and difficult to reason with. Rumors around the castle, that had been whispered even before Darby’s arrival, but were now spoken loudly, suggested the king was ready to step down. Darby had felt an immense sense of pressure when the servants addressed her with reverence and awe. They viewed her as their next leader, which made her uncomfortable. She was not fit for leadership-at least not in this capacity. She wanted to get another degree and teach history at a college, not rule a country in a mythical land that she grew up hearing about. She was not fond of this idea and she had no intention of following in her grandfather’s footsteps. Instead she wanted to go home, but there were people suffering in the West Kingdom and, though she knew it was foolish, she made the commitment to do her best to help them until she left this crazy world, if she could ever leave.
After a restless night, Darby donned a gown that looked like something from the middle ages with the simple lines and the mesh sleeves that hugged the arm until the elbow when it plunged into a loose triangle. It was a dress made for a princess.
Sighing as she looked at herself in the mirror rusted and dirty she realized that she was living a childhood dream. All she had wanted back then was to be a princess. She had dressed up in frilly pink dresses, plastic crowns, and her mother’s heels, forcing her parents to call her ‘Princess Darby’. Little did she know that she really was a princess. But that had been a wistful dream, merely a desire to escape into a magical land that could not exist anywhere but in her imagination and her grandmother’s stories. The ‘fairy tale’ wasn’t so magical or wonderful as she thought. Instead it was dangerous, full of even more difficult decisions and there seemed to be so much personal contention. She preferred to stay in the real world where she was just a normal girl, dealing with normal problems of a recent college graduate. Like trying to find a job and a place to live, not international problems, if she could even call that.
Suck it up girl, you’re here now, and you need to deal with the problems at hand. She was desperate to speak to the West Kingdom’s king. Slavery was still in full force there and she wanted to see what could be done about building bridges between the two kingdoms. Her grandfather had done nothing but engage in battle with them over land and the occasional prisoner, never had there been any semblance of an attempt at a peace talk between the two kings. In fact, neither of the kings had been near each other unless it was with a sword.
This information had been relayed to her by a helpful servant that had been pleased to be acknowledged by Darby. The girl had been no more than fifteen and was frail and mouse-like with large brown eyes with hair a sort of faded brown. Her name was Lecil and she had worked in the castle since she was twelve. She considered it an honor to be allowed to wait of Darby, who was the Princess and future Queen of the East kingdom.
Darby planned to use the information she had learned as well as the leverage she recognized she had over her grandfather to gain access to the West Kingdom with an armed guard to ward off any strangers who might have less than honorable intentions.
Coming down the stairs Darby spotted her grandfather limping into the throne room with his advisor, a spindly man with a long nose and scrawny legs. Picking up her skirt and watching her feet to avoid tripping down the stone steps with no banister, she rushed to catch them before their discussion became too private.
Darby had noted the lack of a banister the night before and commented to Lecil who gladly offered an explanation. The banisters had been removed from the stairs and the landings to make it easier to throw any opposing forces that might enter the castle and start a battle. It had been ordered after Verona had battled the men in the castle but had not actually been completed until after she and her son had left. There had been no internal battles since that day, but the precaution still remained.
Pulling open the heavy wooden door to the throne room Darby interrupted the bird-like advisor mid-sentence. He jumped and scowled at her as she walked boldly into the room, glaring back at him. “Andrew, I need to speak with you,” She paused and glared at the advisor, “Alone.”
“How dare you speak to the king that way!” The advisor, whose name she had not bothered to ask sputtered, “He is not only your grandfather, but also your king!”
Rolling her eyes at the idiot man, she opened her mouth to retort but was stopped when her grandfather boomed, “Lionel, leave.”
His face contracting in strange ways at the king’s sudden demand the advisor who did not deserve to have the word ‘lion’ in his name, bowed and skipped off in an odd lilting gait. When the door closed behind him, Darby turned to her grandfather and said, “I would like an armored escort to travel to the West Kingdom to speak with the king.” These words felt strange coming out of her mouth. She was not used to referring to places as ‘kingdom’ or to people as ‘king’.
“No.” The king yelled, coming out of his throne where he had been sitting. “You will not go there it, it is dangerous.”
Anger swelled up in Darby, though she knew this would happen she did not like being controlled and her grandfather was not going to stand in her way, “We had this discussion last night. I will do what I wish. This does not just apply to marriage, but also to my travel plans. You can either send me with an armored escort, or I will go alone, on foot, with no knowledge of how to use your barbaric weaponry!” The words came out of her mouth so quickly she had to reflect on what she said to comprehend her own argument.
Grinning as she sat atop a horse, Darby held the reigns loosely in her hands. After much hemming and hawing, her grandfather had finally consented and she was given her armed escort. There were a total of ten well armed soldiers in their official garb accompanying Michelle, Nick, and herself. Two guards on each side of them as well as to in the front of the group and two taking up the rear flank. Darby had been shuffled to the middle of the group and it was clear that should an attack be launched on them, she would be their first priority.
The entourage was silent for the first hour of their trip, but Nick soon began asking one of the soldiers questions, which Darby listened to for a while before Michelle picked up the practice as well. Sighing, knowing that it would seem odd if she did not begin to speak as well, she turned to the soldier on her right and asked him his name.
“Markus, Your Highness.” He said in a deep voice.
Blushing at the label, Darby corrected him, “Please, Darby’s just fine.”
Markus smiled and nodded his head. But it did not seem as though he was going to offer any continuation of the conversation. So, feeling the need to solve this lull, Darby opened her mouth and started babbling. “You know, I knew about this place long before I ever knew it was real.” She waited for some sort of affirmative noise or word to let her know Markus was listening, but he did not offer one. Looking to him she saw him paying attention and she continued, “My grandmother, Verona, who was, well, I guess still is, Andrew’s wife, started telling me stories about this place since I was fourteen. I honestly thought she was just making it up until we accidentally stumbled upon it.”
Looking at him again showed that, while he was paying attention, he had no intention of offering anything to the conversation. Glaring at him, she saw the small smile playing around his lips and realized that he was enjoying it! “You know, proper conversation dictates that you respond with your own words, otherwise it’s not a conversation, it’s just me babbling.
“I enjoy listening to you speak.” He said, the same mischievous smile on his face accompanied by a glint in his eye that told her he was no different than the charismatic guys in her world.
Making a gruttal sound in the back of her throat that clearly illustrated her disdain for his comment, Darby responded with, “You’re no different than any guy back home- a charmer, just waiting for the right moment to charm my pants off.”
“You are not wearing pants.” He said simply. And though Darby knew he said it only to make her angry, she rolled her eyes.
“You know full well what I’m saying, even with the colloquial differences, you understand.” She retorted. “Now, tell me, what is your family like.”
Smiling Markus willingly spoke about his family. “My father was a soldier, but he died in battle five years ago. My mother and my sisters live inside the castle walls and I see them when I am there.”
“How old are your sisters?”
“Mara is nine, Meili is fourteen, and, Mina is sixteen.”
“Wow, three sisters! I always wanted siblings.” Thinking for a moment, trying to find a sneaky way to word her next question, “What about your children and your wife?” She asked.
“I have neither.” He said, and it was obvious he could see through to her original intent.
“Really?” She replied. “I did not expect that.” Smiling for a moment at the nature of the conversation she was glad when the next two hours were spent talking in depth about family and life in their different worlds. Markus was astonished at the technology she described, and he was unable to comprehend telephones, cars, computers, and planes. But the amazement was not restricted to him. Darby discovered that fairies, goblins, elves, and many other magical creatures that only existed in the fairy tales did indeed exist in this world. She learned that the elves had long ago left to distant lands across the mountains to be away from mortals. Fairies, dwarves, goblins, pixies, and most other magical creatures had made the exodus with them hundreds of years before.
It was in the middle of this discussion that time seemed to slow down. There was a moment when the horses erupted from the forest that surrounded them on both sides of the trail that seemed to stand still. It was a moment when the soldiers escorting them had their swords pulled out and raised to defend, while the black clad attackers’ crazed eyes and gleaming swords were already coming down on some of them.
Blood spurted from the soldier on Darby’s left as he was sliced through the neck with a long blade. Markus grabbed her reigns and pulled her horse behind him and slapped it’s hindquarters. The gelding, who though had been a gentle horse was used to the terrible gore of war. Knowing it’s command it began to gallop away from the fight, taking her with it. In Darby’s confused state she knew this could not be a good sign.
If the soldiers who had been enlisted to her protect her were sending her away as quickly as they could, they must have known they could not protect her sufficiently. Glancing behind her she saw the battle getting smaller and smaller. When she turned back around she quickly pulled on the reigns as hard as she could and stopped before she collided with a line of nine armed soldiers, garbed in the same black as those who had come from the forest. Realizing she had played into the trap, Darby quickly pulled the reigns to the right to turn the animal around and head back in the other direction and possibly into the forest.
Kicking her heels into the animal’s side she made encouraging noises and soon aimed the gelding into the forest, keeping her body close to the beast to encourage him to go faster as well as to avoid low hanging branches. She could hear the other soldiers hot on her heels and knew that if she had not had prior experience with horses she would have been caught already. It was then she realized that she had left her friends behind to be slaughtered with the soldiers. She sent a silent prayer to her friends, hoping they would survive the ambush.
Hearing the heavy breath of the horse under her she knew the poor creature couldn’t last much longer at this speed. Her options were limited. She could not keep pushing the beast for if she were to slow down she would simply allow herself to be caught. But it did not seem as though she had another choice. She had no weapon and the soldiers were still hot on her tail. Making the decision she began to slowly bring the beast to a less painful pace until she was able to stop him completely.
Only three of the nine soldiers she had encountered at the line had followed her. When they caught up to her they were grinning like the Cheshire Cat. “Your Highness.” One of them taunted as they circled her exchanging looks with one another. “Finally given up have you?” Another mocked. One reached out to touch her hair and hold it in his hand.
“What do you want?” Darby asked, feeling her voice shake. She wasn’t certain if it was from fear or from the exertion of keeping herself on the horse through the treacherous ride through the forest.
“Ah, we want you princess.” The first crooned, twirling a strand of her hair with his finger.
“Straltin! Ronger! Missner!” A voice called. The three soldiers quickly straightened their backs and the one holding her hair pulled away quickly. The voice had come from another black clad rider, one that the three obviously respected. As he approached their sense of nervousness increased steadily. “I see you caught her.” the man said. He was larger than the three, and much more menacing. His face was scarred and distorted, one eye not quite able to open all the way. But he could not have been more than thirty. Battle did not treat him well, Darby thought, knowing her eyes were wide with fear.
The man did not say anything to her, instead, he looked her up and down and came closer, inspecting her more thoroughly. Once he assured himself she was who he wanted he produced a length of rope from his saddle bag and gestured to one of the three to hold her hands. He tied them tightly together in front of her and when he was finished, pulled her from her horse onto his, allowing her to throw her leg over the horses neck and he held her in front of him. Directing one of the three to bring her horse they made their way back to the main road where the other soldiers were waiting.
“The escort?” The scarred man asked when they arrived.
“Seven are dead. We left three alive to deliver the message to the king.” One man said, keeping his eyes low in respect for the scarred man.
“And the others?” Scarface asked, referring to someone Darby did not know.
“Already on their way.”
“Good.” Scarface said, nodding, Darby felt his chin hit the top of her head. “Send her horse home. Let that be another message.” And with that, he turned his impossibly large stallion, and, keeping his arm an iron band around her waist, started down the road, the same direction Darby had been heading with the charismatic Markus and her friends who were either dead or captured just as she was headed to an unknown fate.
A/N: I know it took longer than I expected, but it's a long chapter! Yay! :D Please let me know what you think! I live for your comments! And if you liked it please click the button! And as always 4 comments are required before I'll post the next chapter! Love you! ♥Meradee