Chapter 2 - The Crown Princess of Gaaldine by A.J. Hall
“Do you know these mountains?” she asked. The stars danced in the thin air above them, clustered diamonds on the midnight-blue velvet vault of heaven. They had shone like that on the night of the final ambush, the one that had ended his soldiering career, the night Murray died to save his worthless skin.
She tipped back her head to look at him, the firelight dancing across her face. She was his princess, his charge. She had asked for an answer. Words must be found.
John swallowed. “We campaigned up here. In the last war with Gaaldine. A tough campaign. They cut our supply lines; we survived by eating our foundered horses.”
And by eating other things, too; not fit for a lady’s knowing.
She exhaled into the bone-cold air; her breath condensed, for a moment, on the furs in which she was wrapped and then froze, instantly, into little spikes.
“How did you cook the meat?”
“We didn’t.” The words — too quickly uttered — fell burning into the silence of the campsite like small drops of vitriol. After a pause he added, awkwardly, “I’m sorry, your grace.”
“For what? For telling the truth?” She rose unsteadily to her feet, still robed in the fur blanket, looking down the pass, down towards the plain of Gaaldine. “I think — down there — I will have a great need of truth. And little chance of finding it. Be true to me, John, please.”
“Always,” he said, and heard a younger man uttering the same word, to another woman, long ago. Also by firelight, come to think of it. A word which had, once, brought him here, to the high border country between Gondal and Gaaldine, to which now, it seemed, Fate was hell-bent on returning him.
And then the shadows around the camp-fire rose up like wolves in the night-time; he was throwing water on the fire, dousing the torches in snow-drifts, kicking the Princess under the fur rugs for camouflage, drawing his dagger with his right, his short-sword with his left, twisting in unforgotten patterns, carving death wherever he went, hearing his companions scream as they died, knowing they were too few, pitifully too few to fight this attack, whoever they might be, whether mountain bandits or the Heir of Gondal’s men.
He tasted defeat with every blow.
He had failed Charis and the King.
He had failed the Queen, the greatest hurt of all; he must meet her on the other side of death, his failure naked on his face. But he would not come to her yet; not until his enemies mounted up before him — he ducked beneath a spear-point, thrust up, heard the satisfying gurgle of enemy life extinguished; twisted, stabbed again - the old, familiar battle smell of blood and shit — the smell he would take into eternity.
Fighting every step of the way, he fell back towards the ashes of the campfire, felt frantically amid the discarded furs, heard a muted shriek of terror at his approach, cursed himself for an idiot —
“John?” Gulped, hurried, but still in command of herself, thank God. He passed her a dagger he had snatched from one of the fallen; sticky and clotted, of course. No matter. Her mother’s daughter.
“Anything gets past me, use that.”
Death before dishonour. My last gift to you.
Torches bursting across the night like demented comets; swords clashing, daggers sparking —
Something swatted the side of his head; he fell forward. He could only have been unconscious for a few seconds, but when he awoke —
“Move a step forward, and he dies.”
Charis’s voice, with a growl in it which put him in mind of a hunting leopardess. He twisted his head upwards, his eyes and brain together protesting at the brightness of the torches ringing them. Amid a tangle of wolf- and bear- pelts he saw his princess — his charge — the delicate fourteen year old virgin whom he had sworn a solemn oath to protect - her right hand twisted in a mop of black curls and the edge of the blade he had given her pressed against an impossibly pale throat.
The boy had been sent as a hostage to the court of Gondal during one of the endless series of fractious, half-hearted truces which had marked the dying years of his grandfather’s reign. He had been not much older than Charis, then; sulky, withdrawn and wild. The intervening two decades had changed him less than John had imagined possible.
“Lower your dagger, your grace,” John said, clearing his throat. “Everything’s fine.”
“Our outer perimeter —”
“Your outer perimeter,” the Prince said flatly, “was bought. Twice over. If Anderson had only sent his signal earlier instead of flailing around waiting for some spurious confirmation which was never going to be forthcoming I could have mobilised this escort party hours ago and you wouldn’t be down seven men and two women. Though, on the bright side at least Anderson managed to get his own stupid throat slashed in the process, which saves the coffers of both Gondal and Gaaldine. Plus anyone else he might have been taking bribes from along the way.”
“Excuse me.” Charis rose to her feet, her hand pressed hard against her mouth, and vanished unsteadily through the flaps of the tent. The Prince looked after her with an expression of bemusement which, John thought with a wholly inappropriate impulse to giggle, was almost unbearably familiar, even if he hadn’t seen it in nearly twenty years.
“Now what? After all, she insisted on seeing the dead bodies herself, even though I warned her what it would be like, especially the women, and if that didn’t upset her —”
“There’s a difference,” John said, “between exercising almost inhuman self-control to pay one’s respects to those who have died in your defence and not being upset. If you are serious in your intention of marrying Princess Charis, I respectfully suggest you learn it. Your grace.”
“Or what? She’ll kill me?” His hand went up, almost unconsciously, to trace the thin red line which disfigured the smooth skin of his throat, where the leather jerkin gaped open. “Admittedly, the history of Gaaldine doesn’t lack instances of princesses taking the direct route out of uncongenial marriages, but attempting it before the ceremony is, at least — interesting.”
His tone was light but something twisted in John’s heart.
“Not uncongenial,” he protested.
“Oh, be realistic, John. My feelings don’t need sparing. How could it be anything but, for her? At least I have the good fortune that she seems to possess a concept of royal duty that seems well-nigh bottomless.”
He hunched his shoulders, staring into the depths of the fire. He did not speak again, but the intensity of his isolation was a dismissal in itself. John sighed, rose stiffly to his feet, and headed to the tent, from which muffled sobs were emanating. That, at least, was a problem he might do something to assuage.