Grace was trapped. The room was small and cold. The stones that made up the wall, felt damp and slippery. She sat on the floor, pouting. Nothing had gone the way she had planned.
Only twenty days before, word had come to her father, the King of Doll that the King of Pol was moving against his Southern border. The south of Doll was the kingdom’s most fertile lands. They produced almost all of the food grown in Doll. The King of Pol wanted to take those lands away.
The coming war seemed fated. There had been tension on the border for many years.
It wasn’t like the Pol people were starving. In fact, just the opposite was true. They had so much extra food; they were selling it to five other kingdoms. Nobody could figure out why they wanted the Doll land, other than to force Doll to buy its food from Pol.
In an effort to understand, the King of Doll sent his smartest adviser south to investigate. She just happened to be his daughter, Grace.
Grace had been to the south, only once. A young boy she had met in school had invited her to come spend the winter holidays with his family in the small village of Teal. She had enjoyed her time in Teal with the boy Peter, and so had headed that way to begin her investigation.
Along the way, she met a man stumbling in the highway. Dismounting her horse, she asked if the man was alright. The man just stood and slowly weaved from one side to the other until he almost fell over. Grace was quick to catch him. She felt his forehead. He was burning up. In fact, his whole body felt inordinately very hot.
She had called to her cohorts to dismount and make camp so she could tend to the man. And so they did. Making camp near where the mountains met the fertile savannahs. As the others started a fire and prepared to make the evening meal, Grace tended to the man.
As she kept wet compresses on his forehead she wiped the sweat from his chest. She kept commenting that no human could be this hot. And so on into the night, she kept dipping the clothes into the cool stream nearby, and tried to cool the man down. She hoped it would help cure him from what he was suffering.
As the moon rose, the man’s eyes fluttered. He looked at her. He tried to say something; but could not. His mouth was parched.
Grace slowly placed a clean soaking cloth at his mouth. “Here, suck on this.” She knew that a person, who was very thirsty, would drink too much at one time. That could prove to be disastrous. He sucked the cloth dry; as he did the next three.
Finally, he could speak in a horse whisper. “Why?”
“Did I save you? Because you are a man; and who am I to choose, one of the other, to save or let die?
“But, you don’t know me?”
“You were walking on the road. You too are a traveler, the same as we. What kind of a person would I be if I did not offer the help I was so very capable of giving?”
He fingered the fine cloth of her travel clothes. “By your clothes, and these men, I would say that you were very rich and probably also powerful. Those kinds of people do not dismount to reach down to those on the ground.” Looking around, he noticed how late in the night it had become. “They also would not spend this kind of time applying cold compresses to a man burning from some unknown reason.”
One of the soldiers knelt down in his armored legs, and handed a bowl of sweet smelling soup to the man. “We would have to camp somewhere tonight.” Looking about, he nodded. “The Princess has chosen wisely.”
He pointed across the highway. “Over there, the ground is damp and we would ache in the bone by morning, and half of us would be sick by midday. Over there, is a thicket of Scratch weed, it would have been most uncomfortable for us to lie on.”
Nodding, he stood. “Yes, I would say that you were very lucky to be where we needed to be for the night.” He smiled and turned back to his duties at tending the fire. The gentle snores of others combined with the shearing sound of his metal greaves on his legs, as he walked, to create a kind of music in the night.
The man looked at Grace. “So I was right about you being rich and powerful.”
Grace smiled. She plopped down on her rump on the grass. Her metal greaves squeaked under her travel dress. Her legs were tired from kneeling over the man all evening.
She sighed and looked into the night. “Princess, yes. Rich and powerful . . . “ She slowly looked back at the man. “A ruler is nothing more than a farmer. We are only as successful as the land and the landsmen are. If their crops fail, we fail. If we encourage them to be successful and grow good crops, and make good merchandise, then we are also successful.”
“ . . . And rich.” The man insisted.
She pursed her lips. “We have enough food to eat, yes that is true. But there have been some years where the soup was more water than meat or vegetable. But we have made sure that our landsmen had enough to eat. For a starving landsman is too weak to work, and will not be able to plow, tend or harvest his crops.”
“So the landsmen are your crop, and you tend them so there is food on your table.”
“In a manner of speaking, yes; I guess you are right.” She smiled. She thought that her father would like the analogy. She hoped that she would be able to tell him later.
“So even though you are powerful, you still bend over to take care of those who don’t live in a fancy castle. Isn’t that a little patronizing?”
“Do you feel patronized that the Duke brought you a bowl of soup that an Earl cooked from a hare and a duck that I shot this afternoon? Or do you just feel well-fed?”
The man looked in his bowl. “Fed . . . But if there was just a tiny bit more?” He smiled.
Grace could have sworn she saw a brief flame in his eyes. But; his smile was warm, and she thought that there might be some more soup left. She took the bowl and rose.
The man watched her as she made her way towards the fire. She wove her way through her men, checking each of them as she went. One had rolled over, and she stopped and spread the blanket back over his body and shoulders. Another she spoke softly to, and he relaxed and went back to sleep. Finally, she made it to the pot that sat on the stone that ringed the quiet fire.
The old man rose on his one elbow and watched intently as she dished out the soup. She ladled most of it into his bowl, and looked and spoke to the soldier standing guard. He nodded his head and waved his open palm about, indicating the others. She scraped the last small ladle full into another bowl.
Rising, she took up a skin of water and filled the pot. She washed the water around the walls of the pot, and then put the pot back where the water would heat.
She took up the bowls and stood. Striding slowly back, she checked her men again. She smiled as she toed the blanket back over the young soldier’s shoulder. She watched a moment. The blanket stayed, he was soundly asleep.
As she handed the man his full bowl of soup, he nodded at the young man. “He has trouble with his blanket often?”
She glanced back at the man, and turned smiling with softness in her eye. “He is the son of the baker in the city. It will take him a little time to learn to tuck his blanket in around his armor.” She sat down cross-legged, her armor shearing with a musical sigh. “In our armor, we can’t feel when a blanket falls off our shoulders. So we can get very cold before we wake up. Once you are that cold, you can’t get you and your armor warm again until the sun returns.”
Thinking, she rocked forward. She placed her bowl on the ground between them, as she reached forward to feel his forehead. The man noticed that her bowl had very little soup in it. And to make it worse, it was all broth and no meat. He looked at the large chunks of meat and carrots piled in his broth.
She sat back. “You are still very hot.”
He mused. “I am always very hot. It is the nature of the beast I suppose.”
He pointed at the two bowls as he tried to pour some of his second bowl into hers. “You have given me your share of the pot. You will not do well tomorrow if you do not eat.”
She gently pushed at his bowl. “Actually, I have very little interest in food right now.” She looked up at the man’s face. “. . . And, what do you know about tomorrow?”
The man spooned some more meat into his mouth. He watched her. She truly didn’t have an appetite. He pointed down the road with his spoon. “You are going to meet the other army; no?”
She pursed her lips thinking. The man had been walking the same direction they were headed; so how did he know what lay ahead? “What do you know about the other army?”
He chased the last carrot and piece of meat about his bowl. Chewing, he put the bowl to his lips and drained the last of the broth into his mouth.
He wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and belched quietly into his closed fist. He watched her the entire time. There was no condescension or disgust in her eyes. There was only patience as she waited him out.
Putting his bowl down, he wiped his mouth once more with the other sleeve, and laid back. He looked at the night sky.
“Why do you think the Pols want your farmlands?”
She thought about the shift of his thoughts. “We don’t know. We have thought about it a lot, and it really doesn’t make sense. They don’t need the food; they have more than they need. And there is nothing here but the farmland.”
He rolled up onto his one elbow. He studied her. “Are you sure?”
“What do you mean?”
He pointed into the dark. “What is behind those trees?”
She looked at where he was pointing. “The Mercurial Mountains; but there is no ore down in this part of the range. Most of the caves and tunnels that have been examined are just limestone. The farmers use the lime to sweeten their fields. But other than that, there is nothing of value other than what you break your back to grow.”
The man lay back. “So you don’t know about the dragons.”
She laughed. “You are a curious man. We find you almost dying on the road, and now with two bowls of soup, you talk like a man who has had too many jacks of mead or beer.”
He wiggled his eyebrows at her as he smiled. “So, you think I’m daft or drunk on that good soup.” He rose back up onto his elbow. “So you don’t believe in the dragons; eh Grace?”
She examined the man for any signs of duplicity. Finding none, she asked “How did you know my name was Grace? The Duke only referred to me as Princess.”
“Well, Princess. I don’t think you are Elizabeth, for your little sister is only nine next month. Hope, is older, and already married with a child soon to be born, so she would be in no condition to put on armor; much less travel. That would leave Gwyneth of the raven black hair that she keeps trimmed to her shoulder to show off her back in party dresses; or the redhead princess that would rather be in a travel dress that would hide steel legs and boiled leather body armor.”
She was uncomfortable that a stranger knew so much about her and her family, but strangely, she was not uncomfortable with the stranger. She finally picked up her bowl of now cooled broth and drank it down. She licked her lips tightly as she watched the man’s face. Finally, she raised her right arm and wiped her lips on the sleeve smiling.
He laughed. “I would have sworn that you would have wiped with your dirk hand, instead of your sword arm.”
She laughed. “It makes no difference. In the field, we use whatever is convenient. So, now that you know so much about me, what about you?”
“Me?” He lay back. Putting his hands crossed behind his back. “My name is Pel’k, and I’m just as you said; a man on the road.”
“What kind of name is Pel’k; and where are you from?”
He rolled on his side with his hand tucked under his head. His dark eyes seemed to catch the light from the fire and reflect the flames. “Pel’k is a very fine old family name. As for where am I from? Well, most recently, a very long way away. But originally I was from around here.”
“So, why return home now?”
He closed his eyes. His breathing was soft and slow with a rhythm that almost got lost as a soft summer evening breeze. Grace started to think that he had drifted off to sleep.
His lips parted. “Some of the children” He sighed. “Some of the selfish children are starting to squabble over something that isn’t even really theirs.” His eyes opened, and the fire flared as the Duke put on some more wood. His dark eyes were nothing but the iridescence of the fire.
He moved back up onto his elbow, and then sat up cross-legged. “So old Uncle Pel’k had to come back and sit the children down and tell them what was what before someone got hurt.”
He reached down and plucked up a few blades of grass for his hands to play with as he looked deep into the dark at the mountains beyond the light. The vein in his forehead throbbed lightly, but enough for Grace to see.
“And did they?”
He didn’t move for a few moments, and then turned slowly. “Did they what?”
“Listen, and behave themselves.”
He sighed. “I haven’t started yet.”
“So you haven’t gotten home yet.”
He tossed aside the blades of grass that were now tied in a tight complicated knot. His left hand pulled three more blades. His upper lip rolled under and tight to his teeth. “I’ve been watching them. This is a very complicated problem.”
His left hand now pulled up six more blades of grass. His hands were busy. “At one time, there was one family who was trusted with the item. Now another wants that item for no apparent reason. But I’m not sure they could be trusted with the keeping and proper care of the precious item, so I had to watch both to see who I could trust.”
Grace shifted and the metal greaves sheared. The tune brought a smile to Pel’k’s lips. His left hand pulled seven more blades of grass.
“So have you reached a conclusion yet?”
He looked at her and smiled widely. “You haven’t even what it is that they are fighting about.”
She watched him, and then exhaustion overwhelmed her. She placed her face in her hand with her elbows on her knees. Her head slowly wagged back and forth. She spoke in defeat into her hands. “It doesn’t matter.” Looking back up with red rimmed eyes, she looked at Pel’k.
Her body folded in on herself, and her shoulders sagged. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound uncaring about your problem . . . It’s just that I am so tired of hearing about people fighting, squabbling, and picking at each other.” She threw up her hands. “And for what? A little more land that they don’t need and food that they don’t need; a bauble here and a trinket there and they will go to war over it all.”
She fell back. “It is just so exhausting.” She growled softly.
The Duck looked over from his post.
Pel’k waved him down and shook his head.
“So what is your answer?”
She spoke to the stars. “I don’t know.” She lay on the grass, her eyes tracing from one star to the next; searching for help.
She sat up. “That is why my father sent us down here.”
“Just the six of you? Did he realize there was an army of thousands just on the other side of the border?”
She grimaced, “We suspected. I had hoped to come down to find out what it is that they want.”
“Will they tell you?”
“I don’t know. I hope so.” She looked off into the night. “If we do go to war, hundreds if not thousands of men will die. If the battle is here, there will be no crops to harvest next year. But even if the battle was fought across the border, it would be fought in their frame lands. And the same would hold true for them. And that is all about the food. But those that will be fighting are the same people that plant, tend and harvest the crops.”
Pel’k finished the thought. “So even if you win; you lose. You win the war, but have no food for the next year, and no farmers to grow more.”
She nodded. “So we both lose.”
“And what if they want the land anyway?”
“I don’t know . . . Maybe we just let them have it, and hope we can sell them enough other stuff to buy enough food to feed everyone.”
“You would do that?”
“Luckily that would be my father’s decision to make.” She looked back at the man. “But it is an option. We would really rather find a way to not have war.”
“Even if it means giving up your food and lands.”
He lay back down. His right hand covered the blades of grass he had been working on.
Grace took her cue. She picked up the bowls and stood. She thought about the curious man lying on the grass. She knew the second she turned around, she wouldn’t be able to tell a person what he looked like, or even how old he was.
She turned and walked back towards the fire. Her legs softly sheared a musical tone. The man smiled.
The morning was heralded by the call of a meadow bird. The sun was still a few minutes before it would show above the distant eastern mountains. The gray had long turned to pink, and was now just getting brighter. The soldiers stirred.
Peter sat with his blanket tucked in the shoulder hasps of his armor. He held the ration of morning tea out to the Princess.
She sat up and took the leather jack mug. “Thank you Peter, how is everyone this morning?”
The morning watch relayed the report. “All are fine and rested. The horses are fed and watered. The sky looks clear this morning . . . And the man left in the middle of the night.”
Her eyebrows rose as she turned to look where Pel’k had been lying. She turned back as she took another sip. “Did anyone see him leave?”
She looked at the young lad. His breathing wasn’t right. “Peter? Is there something you aren’t telling me?”
He chewed on his lip. “I was letting you finish your morning tea like they told me to.”
“Like who told you to?”
He nodded behind her towards the roadway.
She turned, but saw no one. And then as she continued to turn, she finally saw the large army standing in the shadow of the trees. A lone rider sat his horse. She knew the man well. His father was the king of Pol.
Slowly she put down the jack and the now-spoiled morning tea. She rose stiffly to her feet. She took a step, and then thinking, removed her belt the dirk and shiv were scabbarded to.
Slowly she walked towards the army. As she passed where Pel’k had been lying, there now sat a dragon made of grass blade; with outstretched wings.
She stepped up onto the roadway. “Good morning Detter. To what do I owe this distasteful display of force?”
The man softly spurred his horse. “You will come with me.”
“And my men?”
“They are free to return to your father with the news.”
“Where may my father find me?”
“We will hold you at Flint Castle.”
She nodded her head in understanding. “Ah, the easiest to defend, and has never been breached.”
The lord motioned his left hand, and a horse was led out.
“So, I’m not even allowed my own horse. You really must be afraid of me.”
“It is cleaner this way Grace.”
“If I come peacefully, nobody will be harmed?”
“You have my word.”
“Have you harmed anyone yet?”
“There was a slight problem with a farmer yesterday. My man and he have both been punished.”
She lowered her one eyelid.
“Grace, they are alright. The farmer will be your manservant, and my man will learn that farming isn’t an easy thing.”
The Duke walked out to the roadway. She turned and looked at his face. He wouldn’t blush, but he was very ashamed at being caught.
“It’s alright Sean. I’ll be fine. They are taking me to Flint. Tell my father not to mount an army. It won’t do any good. I’ll stick to the plan, and see what I can work out.”
He bowed his head and took a step backward.
She spun on her heel and put her foot up into the stirrup. Swinging her leg over she pulled the horse around. “Let’s get on with it.”
So she sat in the cell, in the lower bowels of Flint Castle.
She had talked for most of the day before with the king of Pol. There was not even a glimmer of concession. He wanted the land, the food, and the people. The only surprise was, when he also included . . . the Mercurial Mountains – – just as Pel’k had mentioned.
She heard soft footsteps on the hard stones of the dungeon hall. They were not boots of the guards, and there was no armor sound of sabaton steel shoes. This was the sound of cloth slippers or bare feet. The stride was confident, but secretive.
The bold on the door slid back, and the door opened. She remained looking at the far wall. Whoever it was, she didn’t want to talk to.
“This is a dreary place to want to sit in, when there is so much lovelier countryside to see on a nice night like this.”
Her head snapped. Standing in the door was the silhouette of a man in a long tunic. “Pel’K?”
“You were expecting the Duke, or say Peter?”
She rose, still wary. “What are you doing here?”
“Well, I thought I had already covered all of that.” He chuckled. “Come, it is time to leave.” He put out his hand.
The stairs wound up in a series of spirals. As they came out on what Grace knew to be the main level, she could see soldiers, standing about, unmoving. She looked at Pel’k.
He took her hand again. “Come, we are running out of time. I didn’t think they would be so crass as to stick you in the dungeons; so I checked the towers first. It cost us time.”
He pulled her into another upward spiral of steps. They took the steps two at a time, even though her legs were starting to bunch and become sore. They continued up.
“Where are we going?”
“The time stop will end soon, and everyone will return to moving. So, any chance we had of sneaking out the front door is long gone.”
“We froze the movement of time.”
“Who is we?” She pulled her hand out of his.
He stopped on the stair and reached to the statue of Grace. He took her hand and she moved. He gripped her hand harder. “Don’t let go of my hand. If you do, you time freezes for you.”
“But who did you mean by we?”
He could feel the force shifting. He could sense the tiny crystalline structures shift. “We are out of time.” He turned and pulled her up the stairs. “I will explain everything in every kind of detail, but later. We have only minutes to reach the north rampart.”
They turned from one spiral of stone steps and into the last spiral. The stones here were of sandstone. Somewhere in her mind, Grace remembered the only place where there was sandstone in any size or quantity to quarry was in the Mercurial Mountains.
The great clock in the clock tower ticked and the second bell chimed. Pel’k lept up the last eight steps before the ringing had turned to the pealing of the third and last chime of the clock. Grace felt as if he had pulled her arm from its socket. Her feet fumbled and barely touched the sandstone steps.
Her mind raced. She remembered a warm summer day, and her father had taken her to the top spires of the North rampart of their castle. He had explained the difference in the stones. All the Castles were the same in only one feature. All the North ramparts were made from sandstone blocks that had been quarried in the center of the Mercurial Mountains.
She looked along the rampart; a soldier was running towards them. He was an archer. She reached for her dirk and grabbed her hip. Her hand tugged, and was only full of dress.
She reached and pushed Pel’k around and out of her way. She stood calmly facing the oncoming archer. In the dark, he would not use his bow unless he could clearly see who he was shooting. Grace had no such compunction.
Pel’k gargled behind her. Something was wrong with his voice. “I only need the time of forty heart beats.”
Grace didn’t understand, but she did know the jailers didn’t think to check for any armor on a lady dressed in a traveling dress. The archer rushed in. His intent was obvious. He would run into the woman, knocking her to the ground and then attack the man. Little did he know who the real threat was.
As the man reached her, Grace raised her arm and hit his face with the steel armor cops on her elbow. Just her elbow could have done the job, but to guarantee the job, nothing beats a little piece of steel armor.
The blow stood the archer straight up. Grace grabbed the bow off his arm. Then for good measure, she brought her steel plated knee up between his legs. He folded like the wings on a swan; blanched white and going down. She plucked the quiver off his back and pushed him out of her way as she brought an arrow into the bow.
She aimed at the next archer as he was rounding the corner of the long rampart. She knew he would have no armor, so a leg shot was as good as a kill; but the man would recover. The arrow flew true. The archer went down and skidded for the length of three men.
Just then three armed soldiers exploded out of the midpoint staircase. They stopped and looked both ways then started running towards Grace and Pel’k.
Pel’k roared in a deep thundering voice. “I need a few moments more.”
Grace could feel the voice as much as hear it. It rumbled more like thunder than the voice of a man. She almost turned but an arrow shattered on the crenelated wall of the rampart.
The arrow was in her bow before she even thought. It flew back towards the archer almost on the other side of the castle. The next arrow was in and out of the bow and headed for the leg of the first soldier. She hoped he had forgotten his upper leg plates.
She wasn’t thinking any more. The arrows were fed through the bow and then seeking the targets as the next was coming to the bow.
She reached and her hand dove into the empty quiver. Five armed soldiers exploded form the midpoint stairs and three more came out of the corner turret.
Grace could hear hobnailed boots pounding up the last spiral of sandstone steps. She started to turn. “What now . . . ?”
Her words froze in her throat.
The very large dragon swelled up and the red and midnight purple wings unfolded. The entire corner turret was blotted out by the wingspan. From the height of three full men, the dragons head cocked back and belched a stream of fire the length of eight men laid head to toe. His roar was deafening.
Before Grace could run, the dragon stooped, and reached around her waist and lifted her. The large golden fired eye winked. The dragon smiled. The voice was that same thunder rumble that echoed in the center of her chest. “Time to fly, Grace.”