[story] PRINCESS DRIANNA Chapter 2
Ifeoma Isabella Okeke
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The journey was long and silent. Dezla was a remote, secluded village in the southern swamplands- a week’s travel from the palace and so we had to stay over in many towns on the way.
Never in all my eight years had I seen sech a diversity of people and species. Indeed, I’d never ventured beyong the palace grounds and the things I was now seeing all around me were things I’d only read of in books. With wide, eager eyes I observed the creatures around me. I watched them as they carried on their daily activities with a fascination that amused my guardian.
“You have never seen a busy village before?” he asked as we picked our way through the crowded streets. I merely nodded. The General chuckled at me. “Come. I want to show you something I think you’ll like.”
I clung to his weathered hand and allowed him to lead me through the crowd. After walking a few blocks, we rounded a corner and I found myself in the midst of what I learned was the heart of the village- the liveliest part of the community- the market.
With quiet awe I watched the people- all kinds, all species- shouting and bartering, smiling and laughing, talking and buying. There were as many different creatures as there were different goods. Elves, nymphs, dwarves, trolls, centaurs, and many others that I couldn’t identify.
“Amulets! Get your authentic, witch-blessed amulets here! Two for only twenty mir!” cried a heavy man with a long, curly black beard. His two, beady black eyes settled on me. “Would the lovely young lady like an amulet?” He held out a necklace for me to behold. “It was blessed by the high prietess herself and has the power to bring you good fortune and happiness for the rest of your days!”
“Not bad for ten mir.” I heard General Akkad mumble under his breath.
I studied the sparkling red jewel carefully. “That’s not real,” I proclaimed.
The merchant’s beaming smile immediately vanished and he jerked the amulet back to his chest. “Are you calling me a liar, little one?”
“Perhaps you were tricked. That amulet has no Power.”
“Let’s move along, shall we?” the General urged, pushing me along the row of stalls. He tossed a silver mir to the merchant who merely glowered at us.
“General, those amulets were not real!”
“I know…and I think he does, too.”
“Why does he sell them then?”
“He needs the money, I suppose.”
I considered this. Needing money was a new concept to me. I, who’d grown up in the richest of wealth and splendor, found it hard to comprehend want. The rest of our trip to the market was spent in quiet contemplation of this new concept.
When we returned to the inn, our carriage was waiting. This was to be the last leg of our journey. We’d reach Dezla before nightfall and I would sleep in my new bed for the first time. As the carriage rambled over the rocky path through the swamps, I posed a question that had been on my mind since we’d left the market place.
“Are you poor, General?”
He did not look startled or offended by my question. A kind look came over him and he answered, “Not as poor as some. But not as rich as others.”
Unsatisfied, I sat back in my seat and looked out the window. It was dark and I could see nothing but pieces of the white moon through the treetops. I heard the General chuckle. “You will not want for anything, your highness. We might not live in the lavishness you’re used to, but we live comfortably.”
My curiosity sated, I allowed the rocking of the carriage to lull me into a deep sleep. I awoke the next morning in a strange bed, in an unfamiliar room. Immediately I sat up and peered at my surroundings. The room was large with plain adobe walls, sparse furnishings, a large fireplace, and a single, small window.
My bare feet touched the wood floor and I pattered across to the window to look out. Below was a small vegetable garden and a woman stood picking vegetables and putting them in her gathered apron. Beyond the garden was a house- short, adobe walled, with a thatched roof. And along the dirt street were identical cottages.
Horses clopped down the muddy road pulling rickety wagons filled with hay, their keepers walking beside them and calling out to their neighbors as they passed. I looked down again at the garden but the woman was no longer there.
“Ah! The young one is up!” exclaimed a jolly voice behind me. Upon turning, I found the woman, wiping her large hands on her apron and smiling down at me. I decided immediately that I liked the looks of her. She was large and very round in the face with full, pink lips and shiny pink cheeks. Her gray eyes were wide and shining and her orange hair was piled on stop of her head in a loose bun. “I’m Timarina, the General’s housekeeper. You just call me Timmy, though. Everybody does. Are you hungry? I just baked a batch of biscuits and we have fresh tomatoes in from the garden.”
Suddenly I was very hungry. “Yes, thank you.”
She turned to leave but another thought stopped her in the doorway. “I left you some clothes there on the chair. If you need any help, just call me.”
“Oh, thank you, but I already have clothes. They’re in my trunk…where is it?” I looked around the room, finding no sign of my trunk.
“Oh, dearie, that’s still downstairs. You can’t wear your finery around here. You’d stick out like a soar thumb.” With that she left, closing the door behind her. I heard her heavy steps on the stairs and then the sound of her bumping about in the kitchen below.
I looked warily at the clothes folded on the chair in the corner. I’d never dressed alone before. Always there were servants, helping me choose my gowns and putting me into the corsets I’d recently begun wearing. How was I ever to get into my corset without anyone to help?
I fingered through the garments, finding a plain white blouse, a blue skirt, and brown stockings. There was no corset. A little relieved, I pulled the stockings on and then the blouse and skirt over my shift. A pair of brown slippers lay beside the chair and I slipped them on, finding them to be quite comfortable. After happily wiggling my toes in them for a minute, I stood and stepped to the washstand.
I splashed my face with cool water and tried my best to smooth the unruly yellow curls on my head. Without maids, I had no one to plait the blonde locks and I thought I looked like a wild tree fairy. But the prospect of the biscuits was calling me so I tied my hair back with ribbon and hurried down the stairs.
Following the delictable scent, I found myself in a large kitchen. Timmy was leaned over a brick hearth, stirring a pot of what smelled like stew. When she saw me, she smiled and gestured to the little table in the corner of the room. “You look darling, dearie. Now here you go, I’ve made you a big plate. Eat it all up. You’re nothing but skin and bones.”
I stared with wide eyes at the plate she sat before me. It was piled high with golden biscuits, freshly sliced tomatoes, eggs, and corn hash. It was more than I’d usually eat in a week. To gorge oneself was not becoming of a princess. But my stomach growled and I abandoned my training on this matter without another thought. Everything was so delicious. The biscuits were warm and fluffy, the eggs were cooked to perfection, the tomatoes tasted as fresh as they were, and the corn hash was for once devoured in its entirety. When the plate was almost clear, the General entered the kitchen.
He was wearing plain brown trousers and a white shirt that was smeared with dirt and his face was damp with sweat. He smiled at me and pulled up a chair at the table. “We’ll be having a good harvest this year,” he stated. Timmy nodded.
“I thought you were a general.”
“I was. I’m retired now.”
“But you farm? I thought my father paid his generals well…”
“He does. But farming is more a hobby than a job for me,” the General explained patiently. “I see you’ve already sampled some of Timmy’s famous tomatoes.”
“They were very good.”
“Yes. She grows them herself. And there’s quite the demand for them. You should feel honored to be getting some.”
Timmy swatted at him with her dishcloth. “Of course she’d be getting some of my tomatoes! She’s the crown princess and the newest member of our little family.” She looked at me kindly. It was clear she wanted me to feel a part of the strange “little family” the two of them had.
“Speaking of family, there’s something I ought to discuss with you, your highness,” General Akkad said tentatively.
“You’ve come here because it’s not safe for you at home any longer. Now there’s no telling what might happen in the future, but I’m under strict orders to keep you hidden and safe from harm. So we can’t be addressing you as ‘your highness’ any longer. We can’t even use your name. It’s well known across the land.”
“What name would you call me?”
“Well, I’ll leave that up to you. But we’ve got to start telling folks that you’re my grandniece. We’ll say you’re my nephew’s and you were recently orphanned. It’s very important that no one know who you are.”
“I understand. Call me…” I sat thoughtfully for a moment. “Havara.”
“Havara? That’s a pretty name, dearie,” Timmy chimed. “Where’d you come up with it?”
“It was my great-great-great grandmother’s name. She was the last queen to rule Danubae by birthright.”
“Ah, yes. It’s a fine name, a grand choice indeed.”
Happily the three of us lived together in the cottage. I gradually became accustomed to the daily routine. I had chores around the house and sometimes the General, or Uncle as I called him, would let me help him in the fields. Our neighbors were very welcoming of me and soon I had a friends in the village children. I was amazed by how content all these people- and I- could be with such a simple life.
It was pleasing not to be bothered with training to be the next ruler of the land. I did not have to worry about proprieties or military strategies. I was allowed to be a child. But I did miss my family horribly. I longed to see them again- to play in the fields with Shane, to train my magic with mother, to hear Aliqua singing me to sleep.
It was on my ninth birthday that the news came of Groithia’s invasion. It was a shock to the villagers- who’d believed the kingdom to be at peace. For days they spoke of nothing else. I couldn’t go anywhere in the village without hearing my parents’ names. No one understood how our peaceful land could now be at war. But everyone eventually decided that it was not our fault- whatever the cause.
Young men volunteered for service in father’s military and soon there were hardly any remaining in the town. This frightened everyone left to no end. We were a remote village. It took news three weeks to reach us and many in the community were frightened that we would not know vital information in time.
Also, without the labor of the young men, our crops began to fail. The women took to the fields, leaving homes and children to be tended by young girls like myself. It was inadequet substitution. Homes remained dirty and unkempt and the children were unhappy. Families were hungry and the village as a whole declined.
I consoled myself by singing. I would recall songs I’d heard at court or that Aliqua would sing to me. One day, Uncle came in from the fields and heard me singing. He proclaimed it beautiful and after that, my voice was the source of entertainment at night before we retired.
It was on one such night, after my tenth birthday, that the most devasting and possibly most blessed event of my life occurred. I stood with my back to the great fire in the hearth in the kitchen. Timmy and Uncle sat at the table watching me contently when my song was interrupted by the pounding of horse’s hooves.
“They’ve taken Hagra! They’ve taken Hagra! The Groithians have taken Hagra!” the rider cried as he raced down the street.
Hagra! That was the largest city in the south and only a few days ride away from Dezla. All three of us raced to the door and peered out into the darkness. We found most of our neighbors doing the same and the rider came to a halt in the center of the street. People rushed to him, crowding his horse and making it stamp and buck anxiously.
“How many killed?”
“Have they taken prisoners?”
“How long ago?”
“Were any of our boys there?”
The questions came rapidly and the scene was chaos until Uncle stepped in and silenced the crowd with a raise of his hand. As an ex-military commander, Uncle was most respected by our neighbors and everyone hushed at the sight of him. He addressed the rider, “How long ago did they take Hagra?”
“A week ago, sir.”
“Are they heading our way?”
“They are. A small company has dispatched in this direction they’re but a few leagues behind me. The rest of the army is moving on the north.”
A panicked cry rose from the frightened villagers. There was another moment of chaos until someone shouted, “There! They’re coming! Look there!” An eerie silence fell over the crowd and everyone looked at the lights moving down the road. We heard racing horses and exulted war cries and suddenly everyone had scattered. There was a mad rush and I was lost in the midst of it.
Terrified, I whirled around, being smashed into by my neighbors, unable to find Uncle or Timmy. The soldiers poured into the streets, mounted of horseback and carrying torches. Some dismounted and I could hear orders being shouted over the screams of my neighbors.
“Take all those who’re able for slaves! Burn the rest!”
Soldiers swarmed the village and I watched powerless as they grabbed the elderly and the crippled and locked them in cottages before tossing torches through the windows. They set our fences and cottages ablaze and our flower gardens and vegetable patches squashed under their boots. I cried out helplessly and suddenly a hand grabbed mine and dragged me into an alley between two cottages.
“Uncle!” I exclaimed in relief. I threw my arms around his waist and he patted my back reassuringly. But I could feel the tautness of his muscles and the shake of his hands. When he spoke, there was something erratic and frightening in his voice.
“Listen to me, Havara. You must run. Run as fast as you can. Try to make it to the next town. Don’t stop. Don’t look back.”
“Go!” With a mighty shove, he propelled me to the mouth of the alley. I looked back uncertainly at him and my hesitation was long enough for two soldiers to appear at my back. A heavy hand clutched my shoulder and I shrieked in surprise.
“What do you think, Jokil?” the soldier holding me asked the other. He turned me around and looked down at me. “Would she be of any use?”
The soldier laughed. “Maybe in a few years. Put her with the others.”
“What about the old man?”
They appraised Uncle with cold eyes. “He won’t last the trip back to Suraad. Put him in a cottage.”
My heart sank into my stomach. I screamed and clawed as one soldier carried me effortlessly under his arm and the other moved towards Uncle. He gazed at me reassuringly and smiled, even as the soldier pushed him roughly into our cottage.
I never saw him again.
To Be Continued….
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