Stars Over Llorleya- Chapter Six (where you might come after me with pitchforks)
Chapter the Sixth
Mid-winter in Llorleya
Aria danced down the Main Hall, waving a thin white sheet of paper marked with delicate, curling, spidery handwriting. The form of the letters, elegant and graceful, mirrored the personality of the correspondent. The courier, who happens to be Josh, followed uncertainly behind the excited girl, checking his curiosity of what the letter held.
Aria still twirled and leaped, oblivious of the growing amount of spectators. As Rayne came out of a room, eyebrows lifted but still half-peeking into a book, Aria seized her shoulders and jumped, pushing on them to propel herself upward as though being launched into flight, which she well felt she could.
Rayne, needless to say, was somewhat befuddled. "What…?"
She was cut off by Aria, excitedly clutching Rayne’s shoulders. "Oh, I’ve had a letter from my aunt, and you’ll never guess what it says!" she exclaimed.
"From the queen?" Rayne asked with some interest.
Aria nodded delightedly. "You’ll never guess what she said!"
"Where’s the letter courier?" Rayne asked, craning her neck, more out of an impulse to tease Aria’s impatience to tell than out of interest.
"Oh, he’s over there," Aria remarked lightly, her hand flitting over in a swift gesture, motioning to him.
"Joshua!" Rayne leapt forward to embrace him, dropping the book on constellations she had been clutching to her chest. "Oh, I missed you so much!" she exclaimed, still not releasing him with her arms.
He smiled and said something of the same sort. Aria waited politely until her span of patience snapped. "Hmm… Are you finished yet?" she broke in, and if she was rude, she was at least impatient to justify it.
Rayne, looking somewhat embarrassed, nodded and let go, though she stayed at Josh’s side.
"Well, what is it?" Becky asked in a half-whisper, knowing it was the question Aria had been desiring.
Aria glowed. "We are invited to the castle for the holiday banquet!"
"All of us?" Now even Josh seemed caught up in the excitement.
Aria nodded. "The others- except for you and Rayne and Becky, of course, because I want you with me, and you can act as guards- are to go on ahead of us and announce that we’re on our way. Oh, I can hardly speak for joy!"
Doubtless, the others would have said the same, but speak they did, for the hall was abuzz with the clamor of their whispers of anticipation. Oh, to go back home to a nice, clean, populated castle, full of color and feasts of tasty, well-prepared food!
The preparations for leaving began immediately. When the day came to leave, Aria was in her room, being dressed by Becky. After finishing, she stepped over to her wardrobe, selecting dresses and considering them, sometimes with grimaces of distaste (such as when she came upon a bulky, ugly dress the dull, greenish shade of a very old copper penny), sometimes with favorable, thoughtful glances.
"Lady? Does your dress not suit you?" Becky inquired nervously.
"Mmm, hmm," she said distractedly. "It’s fine. I love it."
Becky looked at her quizzically.
"Ah ha!" Aria called triumphantly. "I’ve found it!" She held the chosen dress up to Becky to see if it would fit.
As Becky caught on, she shook her head violently. "Oh, no, Lady, I couldn’t- it’s not proper-"
"Nonsense! Of course you can!" said Aria indignantly. "It’s a holiday. Come along, dress up in something fancy. I’ve already decided that you’ll wear my circlet and ride next to me on my horse. What fun we’ll have! I wonder if we’ll fool anyone," she added, with a quick, cheerful laugh.
Becky was rather horrified, but after a long period of Aria’s coaxing, she conceded on the terms that, if the royal family should get angry, Aria would intercede. And so she left, contriving not to seem utterly silly in the dress.
Wynd sat perched on the corner of a stone block like a crouching gargoyle, watching Aria’s party ride out. To be sure, she was much more beautiful that any gargoyle, if there had been any on her castle anyway, but in the shadow and driving snow she resembled one closely.
Wynd wished she could follow Aria, grant her at least a safe journey, but she had her castle to guard, and besides she didn’t trust herself in the wind and snow. I’d probably be blown away if I tried to swoop down and guide the little Princess now. Rayne and her brother will do a better job than I would, I suppose, she thought.
As she hovered near the towers, keeping close to the walls, she wondered if there was a fairy guarding the other castle. The king needs a guardian far more than an empty castle, she thought. (Though I don’t think she ever meant to say she wanted the job; her castle suited her well, and with Sir Stowaway- whom she had previously known, but just addressed as "Cat"- the castle wasn’t completely unoccupied. Even if she was only a cat.)
As the horses disappeared into the snow, she entered in through a round window and began wringing out her soaked hair, noting with some pleasure how the snowflakes that were caught in her hair and lashes sparkled like the white jewels she wore to the library the day she met Rayne.
Where did I put those things, anyway? she thought.
Well, it had been nice to see humans again. Rather brainless and lightheaded, some of them, but likable on the whole. Except of course the wicked ones. But every race has their faults, and goodness knows humans aren’t the least of them! Wynd comforted herself that soon they would return.
Aria’s scarf and hair flittered out long behind her, mingling, as she rode, Becky seated behind her on the saddle, and Rayne and Josh on either side. Each of her "guards" had a bow, staff, sword, and a full quiver. She and Becky each had a small dagger, in case anything should happen. Not that it should, she had been hastily assured. Few would dare to attack the Princess.
And even fewer in this blizzard, she thought, frowning and brushing her scarf out of her eyes. There had been protests against going out in the storm, but Aria had insisted… now she wondered foolishly if they were right.
Snowflakes, like the wings of white butterfly dancers, swirled around their three huddled horses busily, carried by high wind, catching onto their cloaks and freezing them over.
Not able to see more than a few feet in any direction, like their masters, the horses made slow progress as they walked against the wind, heads down, eyes closed, manes covered in frost, attempting to shield themselves.
Josh felt sorry for his horse, wondering how it stayed on the road- if indeed it did. He sincerely prayed that they weren’t lost. But the horses knew the old path well, and they had traveled it before under similar circumstances, which I will not recount because I don’t know them.
Josh and the girls chattered gaily as they traveled, in an effort to ignore the stinging snow and wind and enjoy themselves.
I’m quite sure that Becky felt out of place, seated on her mistress’s royal horse in her fancy clothes and coronet of very fine, delicate twisted silver strands (so fine that you could barely see them), with one silver leaf and two roses, one a blooming bud, one in full beauty (carved from a glittering ruby and garnet) in the front, drooping onto her brow.
Aria also felt odd without the familiar slight pressure on her forehead, but was immensely entertained by thoughts of the lark they would have upon entering the castle.
But all that was put to an end very quickly, as though it had never been.
"Stop!" Josh called.
He had reined his horse around quickly, calling them to a sudden halt. Aria was startled.
He called out urgently, "It’s an ambush! We’re under attack!"
All laughter and merriment ceased in an instant. Horses, enemy horses, unfamiliar horses, began materializing in the swirling snow- many, many horses, thundering toward them. Aria’s company was grossly outnumbered. Becky screamed, a high-pitched, ear-shattering shriek, giving away their position once and for all.
Aria found herself lurching off the well-beaten road with the other horses, headed somewhere, anywhere, just to get away. Aria had no time to think about who was after them or why.
The sturdy, loyal horses found themselves cornered in the slightly sheltered ring of birch trees, which was unusual in a forest of mostly pine, but our friends had no thoughts for that at the time. The horses stamped their hooves nervously, sensing the uneasiness of their masters, their breath coming in short puffs that were as visible in the cold air as the froth on their necks. Aria bent down to wipe away some, whispering soothingly into her horse’s ear. But despite her calmness, her shoulders that refused to droop in defeat, her spirit that refused to panic, she knew there was no escaping it. They were hemmed in on all sides.
"Get out of here!" Josh yelled to Aria, drawing his sword, the sword he had not expected to use. Rayne took up her bow and strung on an arrow solemnly, her violet eyes hard-set.
"No! I won’t leave you!" Aria said bravely (forgetting Becky for the moment, who certainly would have liked to get away), and her companions could see plainly that she meant it.
"Oh yes you are!" Josh slapped the rump of Aria’s horse sharply, sending it charging suddenly from the ring of trees, past the oncoming riders.
"Goodbye, Princess," whispered Josh softly. A tear slipped down his cheek.
Rayne looked at her brother, terror leaping into her eyes. He nodded to her. She nodded silently back, tears coursing openly down her cheeks. Their shared fate was understood.
"We will defend," Rayne whispered, turning her face to the riders. "Whatever it takes. Aria will escape, and we will not flee like the cowards you think we will be."
As the enemy riders closed in, brother and sister fought their best. As they went down, bravely fighting to the last, they shouted a long, ringing battle-cry. As it echoed through the woods, they were cut down, leaving a lasting, glorious memory that only the lonely ring of trees could remember and cherish, engraved on their hearts.
Seven black horses with wild red eyes plunged through the forest, in pursuit of the one horse and rider that had escaped them. But no more, the riders vowed. They would find her.
They chased her endlessly, untiringly, but not for long, for their horses were swift, unburdened by weariness or baggage. They hewed down the single female rider mercilessly, before she could even scream.
"She’s got the crown," said one man. To us, he is but a husky voice below a shadowy hood. "She’s the one he wants. Come, let’s take her to the castle." So they left, bearing with them a limp, crowned form.
Somewhere else, a small, slight figure, lost and alone, lay in the cold and wind, her purple cloak, billowing over her no longer, covered by a sheet of snow, concealing her, keeping her safe for a time. Buried and cold, she lay there unconscious, fallen of her horse in the sudden lunge of movement, while her loyal friends fought on for her protection and her faithful handmaiden was murdered in her stead. And the lonely, wailing wind swept on around her and the black pine trees closed her in.
Aria awoke the next morning to the feel of a wet, rough tongue on her face. The frost on her long lashes dissolved instantly on the warm, wet tongue. She opened her eyes, and, for a minute, she thought she looked into the deep, unfathomable beauty and wildness of the eyes and face of a wolf. She sat up quickly and shook a sheet of snow off her, her teeth chattering and her body shivering violently, her limbs numb and bluish. The wolf, if it had ever been there, was gone. The snow had subsided but the wind had refused to die down. She looked around her and noticed some large, dog-like tracks pressed into the snow. She was too dazed for the moment to realize the significance of the fact that there was but a single line of tracks, coming toward her, but none walking away.
Then she remembered.
She had been cornered… and her horse had darted away… she had been surprised by the sudden movement… and then the sensation of falling…
She buried her head in her arms and sobbed hot, angry tears that began to freeze on her cheeks. But there was still hope, she realized, lifting her head with renewed purpose. She had to get to the castle and tell her Uncle what had happened- he would find the horrid men and punish them. Rayne and Josh and Becky might even still be alive! But which way was the castle?
She got up quickly, but swayed unsteadily for a moment. She was weak with cold and hunger, half-delirious, her sight blurred and uncertain. But one thing she knew- she must get home. At all costs.
She staggered forward- or whichever way her instincts told her were "forward". And she wandered and circled, half-unconscious again. She just knew she must keep moving. She must get home. She must. She must.
Until finally the lost girl collapsed into the snow, the wind whipping around her fragile figure.
When she came to consciousness again, she was in a warm bed, with three heavy quilts covering her shivering body her and the form of an old woman bent over her. Another, a younger woman with enormous eyes, and pregnant as of several months, sat in a rocking chair in one corner and a man (tall, young, and handsome, though no great beauty), paced worriedly around the room, turning now and again to glance sidelong at Aria. A cheerful fire in a wood-stove burned merrily near the rocking chair, a pot of soup boiling on top, and a table with three chairs sat cozily at one end of the room.
Aria’s temples throbbed where she had hit her head. She groaned softly.
The old woman’s kindly face was creased with worry. Aria studied it unconsciously as it bent over her. It was wrinkled, but friendly, with crow’s feet around the large, soft brown eyes. "She’s come to," the older woman said, turning to the young people, and they let out long, drawn sighs of relief, such as those uttered by people who have held them in through a long, trying night.
The old woman turned to Aria again. "Are you all right, dear? Any fever?"
"Where am I?" she asked, struggling to get up.
The old lady pushed her down. "No, not yet, dear, I wouldn’t try it. I’m called Goodwife around these parts. That there’s my son, Peter, and his wife, Abigail. You’re at our home, darling. This is our kitchen, but we keep a spare cot in here for just such purposes."
Aria shook her head, trying to clear her befuddled senses. "How did I get here?" she asked wearily.
"Peter found you practically on our doorstep- near the barn, actually. You were unconscious, half-frozen, and hardly thick enough around the middle to be a twig. Do you think you can eat anything, dear? I’ve got some broth, there on the stove- it’s warm and good."
Aria shook her head, but not because she didn’t want the food. "I must get a message to the king and queen," she said. "It’s important. How far am I from the castle, please?" She saw no point in telling them she was the princess. Let it be a surprise. They would be rewarded richly when her uncle and aunt found out how kind they had been to her. It never entered Aria’s head that they could have any ill intent.
The Goodwife looked a bit surprised. "Didn’t you hear, child? The castle is overtaken. There’s been a slaughter! Thousands were killed. The king and queen are dead!"
For a moment Aria couldn’t grasp it. Didn’t you hear, child? Didn’t you hear? Dead, dead, the king and queen are dead, dead, the king and queen are dead. Didn’t you hear, child? Didn’t you hear? Dead, dead, the king and queen are dead, dead, the king and queen are dead. Didn’t you hear, child? Didn’t you hear? Dead, dead, the king and queen are dead, dead, the king and queen are dead, her mind thrummed. Then it hit her, hit harder than the sharp snow and wind had when she had first stepped out of the castle stables, when it had stung at her face, grabbing greedily, stealing the warmth from her cheeks.
She saw Becky, simple, shy, sensible, plain-speaking Becky, chattering amiably as she stoked the smoldering fire and hot coals in Aria’s room, as she had done so often along the icy winter nights at the old fortress.
Her mind was aswirl, ringing and pounding- Dead, dead, dead
She saw Josh, uncertainly handing her the fateful letter that had started them on the fatal trip.
Dead, dead, dead
She saw Rayne, soaked through, laughing as they danced with wild abandon in the grey sheets of rain. Rayne would never dance again, never laugh again, never see Wynd again, never meet more fairies, as she had hoped, and Aria was never to see her again, with her enormous violet eyes.
Dead, dead, dead
She saw the Queen, her gorgeous aunt, Eirae; the gentle, patient white hands that had raised her stroking her hair as she sobbed.
Dead, dead, dead
She saw her uncle, dropping into her hand the delicate medallion now at her neck, then spinning her around lightly by the waist as she laughed.
Dead, dead, dead
She saw Gilligan, her playmate, her comrade, helping her to shoot her arrow straight and true- How close he had been! How she had blushed!
Dead, dead, dead
A thousand and one memories of people who were close to her and places she had been happy flooded through her mind-
All of them. Gone. Forever.
She couldn’t remember that they were God’s children- couldn’t remember she would see them again, someday- could only remember their recent nearness, could only remember that now they were gone. It was as though she had been leaning on a soft cloud that had suddenly dissolved, leaving her falling
down into a dark, lonely pit, too high to climb out of.
"I- I-" she gasped, struggling to think straight, "My name is Arianna"- she would need an alias now, Aria was too uncommon a name, but on the spur of the moment she couldn’t decide on any other name more different from her own- "and I hail from the castle- All my family- everyone I know-" she broke off, flinging herself down, sobbing wildly, shaking uncontrollably.
"Oh!" gasped the young pregnant woman.
Goodwife looked stricken. "I wouldn’t have told her like that if I had known- Poor dear-" She walked over and, with only a little difficulty, scooped Aria up, cradling her.
Peter, looking very uncomfortable, mumbled roughly, "Here now- stop that crying-"
Goodwife silenced him sharply, holding up her hand. "She just lost everything she knew with a few words. Let her have her tears." Then, to Aria, she crooned gently, "Hush, hush."
Abigail got up from her chair unsteadily, a hand on her growing child, and walked over to Aria, kneeling beside her, whispering a lullaby whose sweet strains were only halted by the occasionally broken, choked sobbing of the singer.
Aria cried herself to sleep that night, wishing she could swoon and get away from it all. How could she ever rise up again, now that she had fallen so far? All she had now was a memory of happiness and love, and the legacy of friends, lying dead on a cold forest floor.