[Story] PRINCESS DRIANNA Chapter 5
Ifeoma Isabella Okeke
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Months passed and I was thirteen years old. Walks through the hedges with Gadel had become a regular occurrence. He enjoyed my company and I, his. It was pleasant. He spoke to me as an equal and not as a slave nor as a girl four years his junior. He admired the frankness I had with my opinions- no matter how different from his they might be.
He was very busy with the running of the manor. Heinry had fallen ill and his bed was moved to one of the first floor parlors and much of Gadel’s time was spent worrying over him or some kind of business with the manor. But he always found time for our walks.
I looked forward to them. All day I’d long to see his face and hear his voice but it never occurred to me that I might be feeling anything more for him than friendship. All I knew is that I wanted to see him more. And one day my wish was granted.
We were on our walk and had stopped to rest on a bench when he said, “I want you to be my personal servant.”
I gaped at him. “M’lord?”
“You could take Heinry’s old quarters on the third floor. If he does get better, he won’t be climbing those steps any longer and his quarters will be free. I’ve seen where you live now and it’s deplorable. I don’t understand how father could allow anyone to live in those conditions. But in any matter, you will be my personal servant and attend to my needs only.”
I didn’t like his tone. It was commanding and imperious and more like the tone his father would use.
His tone softened. “Say you’ll do it.”
“What about Timmy? I can’t just leave her alone.”
“Your mother? I’ll have those quarters fixed up nicely for her and it’s not as if you’re leaving the manor. You’ll see her.”
I sat thoughtful for a moment. “All right then…I’ll do it.”
He smiled and leapt to his feet. “Good. I’ll have your rooms prepared and a seamstress will come to fit you for new gowns.”
“New gowns?” I couldn’t stop the wide grin that spread across my face. I hadn’t had new gowns in ages!
“Of course! I can’t have my personal servant dressed in rags!”
The next afternoon the seamstress came to measure me for my new dresses. I was shaking with excitement and as she ran her measure around my waist I beamed the widest smile I had in a long time. But that smile would soon disappear.
Heinry died that afternoon. It was peaceful- in his sleep. The manor grieved and a black cloud hung over the head of every person on it. When my chambers were readied I christened them with tears.
Then came another blow. During Heinry’s wake, a messenger arrived at the manor. Lord Colias had been wounded in battle and called Gadel to lead his company in his stead until he healed. Gadel stayed on for Heinry’s burial, but was to leave directly after.
It was raining that day at the graveside. The small family cemetery on the crest of the far hill that Heinry was laid to rest in was flooded with water from the sky. The grass was wet and clung to my new slippers, soaking my feet and making me shiver with cold. My feet sank into the mud as they lowered Heinry’s coffin down into the six-foot grave and the icy wind cut through my black cloak. But I cared only about my grief- for Heinry and for Gadel.
I was torn. Gadel was going to fight my people. He was the enemy. I was supposed to wish him death. But I didn’t. It was quite the opposite. I felt that if anything ever were to happen to him, I’d never recover. These feelings were strange and foreign to me.
I knew I loved Gadel. But I believed it was the way I would love a brother- the way I loved Shane or Oli. And I was certain that Gadel regarded me as a little sister. He’d even told me so before. But the thought of him gone from my life was heart wrenching.
I walked with him to his steed, which was saddled and waiting in the courtyard.
“Come back safely and soon, m’lord,” I entreated.
He grinned. “You know I will. Now get into the house…you’ll get the fever standing out here in this rain.”
“Yes, m’lord.” I watched him mount his steed before darting into the warmth and dryness of the house. Then I peered through the front window to watch him gallop out the gates and out of sight.
Gadel was not back safely and soon as he’d said. Fall came and the harvest with it. There was the traditional feasting and celebrations- even for the servants- but Gadel was not there. He sent letters, however. It was reassuring to know he was well but most of his letters lacked in detail- for my benefit, I suppose. He was always careful not to speak of the specifics of killing my people. We’d come to an unspoken agreement about our differing viewpoints on the war. But he did write that he was in the east- in the dense forests of my homeland and they’d taken a city there where he was now staying.
But then winter came and the snows. Great blizzards passed the manor and the snow was piled to the windowsills. No one could enter nor leave the manor for three months and no letters came nor could they be sent out.
It seemed endless. The chill air permeated the manor house even around the warmest fires. The sky was ceaselessly gray and the view from my window was always bleak white in every direction as far as one could see. Every day I included Gadel in my prayers but it helped to ease none of my worry. With no word from the front, he could already be dead and we wouldn’t know.
Towards the end of the third month, just as the snows began to melt and the weather warmed, I caught the fever. Bedridden and hallucinating, I missed the arrival of the postman with all the letters Gadel had sent over the winter. Timmy laid them on my bedside table as she nursed me.
Sometimes she’d read a bit of them to me in the infrequent times that I was lucid enough to understand them. Gadel was safe and unwounded. His father was healing well but he didn’t know when he’d be able to come home. They’d moved into the desert west and he was engulfed in the fighting. I managed to pick up this much in my delirium but no more.
Timmy told me that she’d written him, telling him of my illness and explaining why I was not responding to his letters. He wrote back, horribly worried and asking if he should come home. Timmy said there was nothing more anyone could do for me now, that I had to ride it out and he shouldn’t bother himself.
For two more weeks I lingered on the brink of death. Timmy was by my side every minute, wiping the sweat from my brow and whispering soothingly as I rode out my fits. And then, slowly, I came out of it. I was able to sit up and eat and write to Gadel to reassure him that I would be all right.
His response was full of relief. He’d been wounded- a scratch he assured me- across his abdomen but was healing quickly. He still didn’t know when he’d be returning.
So I began the long process of regaining my strength. It was spring by then and the warm sunshine helped to lift my spirits. I would have Nealp carry me to the hedgerows each day and set me on a bench and there I would spend the whole day. I would take my meals there and sometimes would do needlework but often would just sit and bask in the glow of the sun.
Soon I was able to walk. At first, I could only take little steps but soon I was back on my feet, running through the fields and riding Talius, my illness only a distant memory in my mind. I only looked forward to the day when Gadel would come back.
But it seemed it would never come. My fourteenth birthday passed, then my fifteenth and sixteenth. I was a woman and was expected to act as such. There was no more running through the fields, chasing butterflies or pixies. I was confined to restrictive corsets which pushed my blossoming breasts up and my waist in.
When I’d go to market with Timmy, the men would stare. Timmy said it was because I was beautiful and I should feel blessed to have such a pretty face and figure. But I didn’t like the leers I got from men. Oli teased me about it but it really wasn’t a laughing matter when I caught Nealp on the roof of his shack, peering into my window while I dressed.
I longed for Gadel to return. I was certain he would not treat me so strangely. But his letters came, fewer and farther between, and never mentioned when he might be coming home.
Then the dreams began. They were vivid and powerful and I would wake from them, panting and covered with sweat, the blankets tangled around my legs and the crescent birthmark on my shoulder blade burning. I would sit up in bed, wiping the sweat from my face and shaking with the intensity of what I’d just experienced.
It was always the same. It’d be a blindingly bright day and I would be a child, playing in the great garden at Palace Iae Wiltur. Aliqua would be sitting on a stone bench, keeping one eye on me as she did her needlework. Shane would be playing in the grass beside me but I was always sitting very much alone.
Wanting to be nearer to them, I’d stand and try to walk to them. But the longer I walked, the farther they were from me. I’d cry out and they’d look up and smile and beckon to me but I could never reach them. Then the brightness of the day would fade and the sky would turn black. I’d look at Aliqua and she would be lying across the stone bench, her skin white and her lips blue and her breathing still.
I’d run to her but as I reached the bench she’d cease to be there. Shane’s hand would come to rest on my shoulder and when he’d speak I’d hear my own words, “How many must die before one little boy is avenged?”
Then my mother would appear through the black. She’d be chained and weary looking and she’d speak to me; her mouth would move but no sound would come out.
And I’d wake, feeling heavy and more exhausted than when I went to sleep. I could only be thankful that the dreams were infrequent and I didn’t go restless every night.
Life on the manor went on much as it had for the last six years. As the Master Gadel’s personal servant I had more freedom than I had as a lowly slave. My life was easy and content. I still took time to groom and exercise the horses and I had my chats with Talius.
I tried to avoid Nealp as much as possible. His lewd stares made me uncomfortable and I often found myself ducking around walls to avoid meeting with him. In fact, I would often set tasks for myself that would be specifically away from Nealp’s work.
One such day, I’d planned to go picking apples in the orchards on the other side of the manor from where Nealp was chopping wood. I saddled Talius and with my basket rode off to the orchards.
I’d been there for a few hours. My basket was almost full and I’d eaten several apples already and was preparing to leave when I heard a horse’s slow steps behind me and the sound of someone hopping deftly to the ground.
The rider’s breath escaped in a long, appreciative hiss before a familiar voice said, “Well, well…I leave a little girl and come back to a woman.”
I whirled to face the voice and a wide grin spread across my features. “Gadel!” I exclaimed. I wanted more than anything to embrace him but was unsure of the propriety of it. But he resolved the issue by stepping forward and taking me into a tight hug.
We pulled away, holding each other at arm’s length, and studying how the other had changed during our three years apart. I was taller than before but he was still inches above me. His shoulders were broad and the cut of his uniform accentuated his brawny frame. Next to him I felt infinitely smaller and more delicate.
I looked up at his face, praying not to find the familiar leer there and with relief I didn’t. Instead, in his eyes was a look of awe and disbelief I couldn’t help but laugh at.
“Am I so changed?”
He shook his head, grinning at me. “I’m sorry…you must realize I’ve been expecting- rather unrealistically- to come home to the little girl I left in the rain.”
“You speak as if I were three years old, m’lord. I was hardly a ‘little girl’ when you left. I was thirteen.”
He chuckled and it was a deeper, more handsome sound than I’d heard from him before. “True. But you were hardly the woman you are now.”
I felt a blush creep up my cheeks and I looked away. “You didn’t write…I didn’t know you were coming home, m’lord.”
I felt instead of saw his grin. “I wanted to surprise you.”
“Did you just now arrive?”
“No. I went to the house first and Oli told me this was where you were. Naturally you had to be in the furthermost part of the manor.”
I bent down to retrieve my bushel of apples. “I’m avoiding Nealp and his leering,” I said matter-of-factly, fastening the basket on Talius’s back. When I turned back to Gadel, his face was stony.
“He’ll be relieved of his duties at once.”
“If he’s making you uncomfortable then-”
“No, m’lord, Nealp is just simple, is all. He’s half ogre. He’s too dumb to know any better.”
Gadel considered me before reluctantly nodding. “But if he steps out of line…” He let the sentence dangle and I merely smiled and mounted Talius, arranging my heavy skirts over my legs. Gadel laughed at me as he climbed atop his own steed. “I should’ve known you wouldn’t ride side.”
“Timmy says I should.”
“It’s the way ladies ride.”
I shrugged and kicked Talius into a trot. “I’m not a lady.”
Gadel brought his horse next to mine. “Really? You could’ve fooled me.”
I looked at him questioningly but he merely flashed me a smile and rode off at a gallop, leaving me to worry over his words.
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