I got woken by the birds singing outside of the cave. I was immediately aware of two things: the bird song and that Ella is sleeping beside me and embracing me. Her head is on my chest and her left arm and left leg are slung across me.
I smiled at our sleeping position. We would scandalize everybody at court if they found out. But I am not bothered by the people at court right now. That seems like another life. All I can think of is the woman who is embracing me in her sleep. She is nice and warm. I moved my arms gently so I can embrace her too. Thomas would have a field day if he finds us like this. Duke Francis will have a stroke. He is convinced that all our agreements and treaties can be cemented further by my marriage to Beatrice. In fact, he instigated that roomful of flowers.
Ella shifted a little and I instinctively tightened my embrace. I did not want to let her go…yet. Her eyes fluttered open and we stared at each other.
‘Good morning,’ she responded, a blush starting on her cheeks, ‘ You were having a nightmare as usual and I was soothing you…’ She was trying to move but I wasn’t letting her go.
‘Here, I thought that you were taking advantage of my weakened state,’ I said jokingly which earned me her scowl to which I only smiled.
‘We need to get up,’ Ella said but made no attempt to move either, ‘by my estimation, the reinforcements should be arriving anytime now. I hope that they saw my markings.’
‘I need a shave,’ I rubbed my palm against my jaw which is now sporting a beard
‘Well,’ Ella started to get up,’ I am not fond of your beard but i think a little stubble makes you look more of a grown man.’
‘Only you can mix compliment and insult in equal parts,’ I started moving myself to sitting position, ‘ are you implying that I did not look like a man before?’
She gave me one of her half smiles before walking out of the cave, not answering my question.
After breakfast, I accompanied Ella in checking her markings to ensure that she is using ones that my own men would recognize.
‘Your markings are perfectly done’ I said as I inspected one, ‘How come you are skilled as a guard, Ella?’
‘I am the fifth daughter of a small kingdom that is in constant war with its neighbors until we were afforded the protection of King Phillip. Younger royal siblings are trained to be part of the royal guard of the heir. This teaches loyalty to the apparent heir and stop squabbling. King Phillip was fascinated by the idea of a female guard for his daughter so I was ‘asked’ to do this honour in exchange for protecting and helping our kingdom. So here I am, fulfilling my end of the bargain.’
‘How old were you then?’
‘I was 17 years old,’ she said softly. I can hear the sadness in her voice though she tries to smile ‘It hasn’t been that bad. The only problem I have is that I am getting lazy as these ladies are not that interested in training.’
I wanted to say more but we heard the distinctive thundering hooves of horses. We automatically crouched behind the bushes and waited anxiously for the riders.
‘It is the palace guards,’ with that said, she ran out of our hiding place and stood on the direct path of the horses.
For the second time in my life, my heart jumped to my throat as I realized that I will not be able to reach the stupid woman in time to get her out of the way in case the men do not see her.
Thankfully the lead riders stopped a few meters from her and I feel like fainting again. I will faint after I throttle some sense into her.
‘Do you have no sense of danger at all?!’ I shouted at her above the din as I hobbled towards her
‘I was never in danger’
‘They could have missed you! These are war horses… They…’ Words escaped me as I held her shoulders tightly, ‘I swear to God you will be the death of me!’
‘Ahem…’ Thomas cleared his throat.
I looked angrily at him and Alfred who have gotten off their horses.
‘And you!’ I now hobbled angrily towards them,’You allowed her to go on her own’
Thomas and Alfred blanched visibly and were bracing for my tirade then Ella touched my arm and said to them, ‘He is just hungry, tired and in need of a shave. He will stop shouting shortly after he remembers he is a royal prince. I hope you brought him some clothes, Thomas.’ She gave my hand a squeeze then smiled,’ come we need to do some planning.’
She walked ahead of us whilst we just stared at her.
‘So… I was right,’ Thomas said with a knowing smile
‘I am not finished with you yet,’ I warned him but gave him a hug anyway, ‘ and her hair, Thomas…’
‘It was all her idea,’ Thomas protested, ‘I wouldn’t have managed to stop her even if I tried’
‘I know…’ I was shaking my head as we followed Ella to an inner clearing which was big enough for all the riders.’Where are the others?’
‘ There’s more men behind but this is the fastest group I could muster. We barely stopped since we rode out.But first, let us get you looking like a prince again.’
She was right, I was feeling better after a proper meal, a shave and wearing clean clothes. I frowned when I saw that Ella was still wearing a tunic and breeches.
‘Why are you not dressed?’ I asked her as I stood beside her
‘I am wearing clothes’ she pointed out unnecessarily
‘You know what I mean’
‘You don’t seriously expect me to be wearing a dress during the rescue do you? I will be tripping over the hem.’
‘You are not coming with us during the rescue’ I told her
‘It is my duty,’ she told me steadily,’besides nobody knows how to breach that place better than I do. I have spent countless of hours studying the place and the men inside. I will be part of the rescue.’
True enough, Ella was leading the discussion about the house and the men inside. I sent a couple of scouts to confirm everything that Ella has said. Her memory of the place was very precise.
The plan was for team of men and Ella to go in and rescue Princess Beatrice rather than an all out siege We did not want the kidnappers to be desperate enough to hurt the princess but we also wanted to end it quick.
The men were preparing to go to sleep early as the rescue will start before dawn. Ella was seated near the fire so I sat beside her.
‘You should sleep early,’ she told me,’ as you are too stubborn to stay behind with your wounded leg.’
‘I am not about to let you get into the fray without me,’ I sighed heavily,’besides I owed Beatrice that much. ‘ I looked around the camp site and saw that Thomas has already prepared my sleeping area and Ella’s which is opposite mine. ‘ I miss our cave.’
‘Me too.’ She replied softly then stood up to make her way to her place.
People were preparing in the dark. There is a sense of excitement as expected before any battle. I made sure I have enough arrows in my quiver and that both my dagger and saber were secured to my waist.
Prince Anthony walked stiffly towards me. At least he is walking better. The painkillers must be working.
‘Ella,’ he started, ‘ you are to stay at the periphery of the battle ok? Don’t be in the middle of the fray. As good as you may be, brute force may overcome you. Promise me.’
‘Prince Anthony,’ I stepped closer to him, ‘you need to focus on protecting yourself during this battle. You cannot spend half of the time worrying about the safety of other people. You have to trust me that I will do what is best for myself. I did not rescue you and nurses you back to health just so you can get yourself killed. Don’t let me worry about you. Focus’ then I tiptoed so I can give me a kiss on the cheek. I walked away without looking back.
‘How am I going to focus now after that?’ Prince Anthony tried to sound stern but the smile on his lips was making it impossible.
‘Try harder!’ I responded without looking back so he won’t see my smile.
Thomas brought Stallion to Prince Anthony’s side and He was glad to see his faithful steed.
‘Thomas,’ Prince Anthony held his arm and looked him in the eye,’ if things go wrong, get her out of here as fast as you can. You keep her safe.’
‘Which one, your highness?’ Thomas asked Prince Anthony though he already knows the answer
Prince Anthony did not answer him instead he gazed at the woman already atop her horse, waiting for the signal to go.
The house was actually massive. How much time Ella has used to watch it, I can only guess. Thankfully, we have successfully breached the house and caught the men inside by surprise.
I focused on the task at hand. Ella is right. I cannot afford to be distracted but damned! where is that woman?
I managed to block my opponent’s sword on time and pushed him back. My next thrust held true and he fell to the floor.
The house has been effectively surrounded by my men and the palace guards. There was no way out. But we have not found Princess Beatrice yet. Ella said that she thinks that the Princess was being held in one of the first floor rooms.
I managed to fight my way up to the first floor. The door to what looks like the banqueting hall of the house was slightly ajar.
I entered the hall and sure enough in the middle of the hall was Christopher, Rachel’s brother, and he was holding Princess Beatrice close to him, with a dagger to her neck.
Princess Beatrice’s eyes widened in recognition when she saw me.
‘Don’t come any nearer,’ he threatened, ‘otherwise, your precious princess will get it.’
‘Christopher,’ I said calmly, ‘ let her go. It is over. The place is surrounded and your men are losing the battle downstairs.’
‘As long as I have the princess, I hold the power’ he replied maniacally,’i know that everybody will do everything for the princess, including her parents. I will still win this!’
‘Win what Christopher?’ Princess Beatrice demanded,’we have been kind to you and your kingdom! Rachel is like a sister to me!’
‘Kind?’ Christopher started to laugh,’ you hold our sister in your kingdom against our will. Threatened to withdraw your protection against the barbarians if we do not abide by your laws! You see, my Princess, you are going to marry our brother! That way your father will always be obligated to help us! He won’t let…’
‘Princess!!!’ Ella’s voice rang out of nowhere. I watched in horror as a flash of dagger went by directly towards Princess Beatrice’s face. With no second to spare she caught the dagger by the handle then stabbed Christopher on his thigh. He was caught by surprise that he slackened his hold of her so she was able to run away from him. Christopher looked up where the dagger came from then threw his dagger in that direction. Ella was standing on one of the beams and was just able to move slightly to the left to avoid the flying dagger before releasing her arrow. Her aim was true to its mark as usual and hit Christopher in the eye. He fell to the floor dead!
‘Ella!’ I shouted both in anger and fear just as Princess Beatrice reached me and threw her arms around me. I hugged Beatrice tightly but my eyes were still on the woman on the beam.
‘What?’ She demanded, ‘Where you planning to talk him down? he was starting to do a monologue and he
Might just successfully bore us to death. Someone has to do something. ‘
I was still shaking in both fear and anger as I watched her climb down from the beam.
‘If that dagger just came an inch closer…’ My voice was actually shaking. How could she be calmly walking towards us?
‘Oh that,’ Ella actually managed to smile, ‘no chance! Beatrice and I practiced that moved so many times and 9 out of 10 she caught the dagger. She has perfect reflexes and timing.’
‘And was the returning dagger also part of the practice?’ I looked at her intently
‘Oh,’ it finally dawned on her which dagger I was talking about, ‘ I cannot predict all the variables. Besides, it barely nicked me.’ She touched her neck where there was blood. She actually shrugged nonchalantly.
I was shaking with anger now. I want to strangle her.
‘It is OK Prince Anthony,’ Princess Beatrice said reassuringly and touched my cheek. She is blissfully oblivious to the current tension’ Ella and I perfected that move and I am now safe. Thanks to both of you.’ Princess Beatrice tiptoed then kissed me.
When I looked up in a second, the men have arrived in the hall, Rachel was wailing over her brother’s body and Ella was nowhere to be found.
We tended to our wounded and after two days we made our slow journey home. I wished we could go faster but with wounded men, we can only go as fast as we safely could.
I attended to the needs of Princess Beatrice as expected of a lady-in-waiting. But she spent most of her time fussing over Prince Anthony so I have been on my own most of the times.
I feel him stare at me from across the camp fire but I refused to meet his gaze. I sometimes find Thomas looking at me with something akin to pity in his eyes but I shrugged it off.
I just want to get back to the palace where I do not have to be within close proximity of anybody. Of course, my prowess with the bow and arrow has now become something of a legend so the men like to talk to me. The same way that Princess Beatrice’s skill in catching the dagger has awed everybody.
Thankfully, we met the rest of the army half way through the journey home. There were at least other ladies-in- waiting who can attend to Princess Beatrice. I was finally allowed some alone time.
Prince Anthony’s parents also sent additional men to Lucrecia so the palace was bustling with activity when we arrived. I eat my meals in the kitchen and stayed in my room so I can avoid running into him or into them.
There was a big feast for the successful return of both Princess Beatrice and Prince Anthony. I would have opted not to attend if not for the royal decree asking me to attend as a guest of honor.
‘It is indeed a joyous occasion that the two most important people for the future of our kingdoms were returned safely to our fold’ King Phillip was starting his speech so I thought that perhaps it is a good time as any to just disappear,’it is because of the bravery of our men and lady that our beloved Princess Beatrice and Prince Anthony are now with us. Lady Daniella, please step forward’
I was already at the edge of the hall when he called me. People automatically made a path for me to go to the center of the throne room. I walked slowly to the middle, keeping my eyes directed at both the king and queen.
‘Your majesty’ I curtsied as low as I can
‘Lady Daniella,’ King Phillip said indulgently, ‘I am willing to grant you whatever your heart desires. Name it and it shall be yours.’
‘Your majesty,’ I had to swallow before I complete sentence, ‘I would like to go home to my own kingdom so i can take care of and serve my elderly parents.’
There was a collective gasp from the court and I can feel the weight of his stare on me but I refused to meet his gaze.
‘Well…’ King Phillip was clearing his throat
‘You asked me for my heart’s desire,’ I said bravely, ‘this is my heart’s desire.’
‘She has already served me very well, Father. Ella deserves her reward.’ Princess Beatrice pleaded my case from the side. I looked at her gratefully then I met the gaze of the man whose arm she is holding onto. I quickly averted my gaze back to the king.
‘In that case,’ King Phillip proclaimed majestically, ‘ I grant you leave to go home to your kingdom in one of my ships that will be leaving in two days. I will also send you additional money as reward for your loyal service.’
‘Thank you for your generosity, your majesty’ I curtsied as low as I could before melting back into the crowd.
My heart should be singing with joy now as I finally won my freedom but it remains heavy. All I know is that I need to get out of here as soon as possible.
I made my way to the pier with Thomas. I can see that they are loading the boxes onto the ship. I do not know what I am going to say but I needed to come and see her before she leaves.
She cannot run away from me here at least. She has successfully avoided me since we rescued Princess Beatrice. There she is standing on the pier, patting Cow before her horse was led into the ship. She must have heard our horses as she turned around to look at us. I half expected her to run into the ship, instead she walked towards us.
‘Hello Stallion,’ she patted Stallion as I get down from my horse
‘So you are really leaving’ I said unnecessarily
‘Yes, I am actually leaving’ she gave me a small smile. Her short hair blowing in the wind.
‘Stay.’ I told myself that I was not going to beg but I had to tell her that I want her to stay
‘And do what Prince Anthony?’ She asked as she faces me,’ watch over you and Princess Beatrice marry and be happy? Or perhaps watch over your little ones when you get married and have little babies? Is that what you are asking me to do?’
‘I know what is expected of you.’ She said softly,’I know the burden of responsibility you carry but I also know that I care too deeply for you that it will be unbearable for me to stay.’tears are now streaming from her eyes, ‘I cannot go away without telling you that. But this feeling… this does not outweigh the future of our kingdoms, of your empire. That is the reason that I must go.’ She wiped her tears angrily,’ Our paths may never cross again so I wish you now all the happiness and love you deserve.’ She tiptoed and kissed me on my cheek. ‘Farewell’
She walked away without another word. I watched the ship sailed away with tear clouded eyes.
‘You let her go.’ Thomas said as he stood beside me
‘She was never mine to keep,’ I said softly as I tried so hard to make out the ship over the horizon.
I, Prince Anthony, crowned Prince and future emperor, made my decision.