By Steve Sagarra
Princess Tenaj, of Geyerhäven, had reached the age of consort, her singular charms only surpassed, if not highlighted, by her radiance. A call goes forth throughout the lands summoning those to be joined whomever would give her hearts desire. For three days, princes and knights near and far come to her court at Castle Vèrpitörr with aspirations for her favor. They offer the coffers of their kingdoms and gifts aplenty, all to her contemptuous displeasure.
The close of the third day brings a young squire, unassuming yet sturdy in his appearance. Whistling a confident tune, he walks through the fields toward the castle.
Knowing that a choice would soon be determined, whether she approved or not, and unmoved by those before him, the Princess allows him to be heard.
“What is your name, squire?” she commands.
“My name is not important, milady,” he answers quietly, reverently bowed. “I am but a lowly servant at my lord’s blessing.”
The Princess, lazily slumping, sits up in her throne. “You are an impudent one at that. I asked your name.”
His eyes wander, meeting her incensed glare. “M-my name is Argentas Phares, m-milady. From Kebahren Tor.”
“And who is your master? Why does he not personally present himself?”
“Duke Estépar of Kebahren. I-I am afraid he has taken to the f-fever, milady. H-he bid me submit on his behalf.”
“A nobleman with whom I am unfamiliar,” she comments, captivatingly puzzled. “Nevertheless, what is it your lord offers?”
He approaches closer, his head still lowered. “If you will allow, he wishes to meet with you in the early morrow.”
“That is rather coarse,” she states, noticeably taken aback. Straightening herself, she relents. “However, I am constrained to consider all proposals. Tell your master it is agreeable.”
With a quick curtsy, the squire makes his exit. “Thank you, milady.”
Dawn cascades across the valley. Awakened, Princess Tenaj prepares herself with the help of her handmaidens. Her eunuch, Axbrét, announces the presence of the young squire. Curious, the Princess impassively dispatches the servants and quickly shuffles to the council hall to greet him.
“Squire, do my eyes deceive or does your lord again fail to show himself?” she crossly asks.
He solemnly bows his head. “My master apologizes for his absence. He sends me in his stead.”
She seethes from the insult. “He sends but a squire in his place? This is foolishness!”
He takes a step forward, pleading. “I’m afraid my lord’s fever has not broken, but he wishes to pledge himself still.”
Calming herself, she contemplates his appeal with a raised eyebrow. “And what is thy offer?”
“If you accompany me this day, milady, I shall put forth my lord’s declarations.”
Steadily, the two navigate confining, narrow passages leading to the central courtyard, flickering torches and sporadic sunlight inefficiently showing the way. Lightly conversing, they pass an array of activity on their way – blacksmiths stoking coals left simmering overnight, farmers organizing tools for the field and soldiers preparing horses for the day’s patrols.
Beyond the main gate, they soon enough enter a small glade in the distant shadows of the castle. Laying before them, an ornately decorated quilt, made from burgundy tinted silk and golden threads, holds an assortment of victuals – a variety of fresh fruits, breads and cheeses alongside smoked meats and fishes.
Tenaj’s eyes light up. “Enchanting. What a delicious looking spread.”
Kneeling, she plucks a tender grape from a bowl, lusciously popping it in her mouth. Intrigued by its appearance, she handles a flattened, browned cake.
“And what is this?” she asks, smelling it.
“A staple of the northern tribes, milady. Baked potato hash, pressed and cooked in oil.”
Her eyes widen in horror, the realization hitting. Tossing it to the side, she loosens a shriek and quickly cleanses her hands from a nearby water bowl.
Standing, she protests in affronted disgust. “Potatoes? Is your intention to poison, or simply to insult?”
Argentas appears stunned. “M-milady?”
She continues to scrub vigorously, maintaining her look of fright. “You do know potatoes cause leprosy?”
Argentas rolls his eyes, loosing a kindly laugh as he takes a seat. “You should not trust everything you hear. That is simply a myth perpetuated by those who believe grubs and snails a civilized meal.”
He picks up another cake, taking a bite. He offers it to her. “Trust me, it is perfectly edible. No ill affects, I swear.”
Sitting, she stares at him with a pensive look. After a moment, she nervously breaks off a small portion with her thumb and forefinger. “Well, you seem none the worse.”
Maintaining her apprehensive gaze, looking deep into his eyes, she gently swallows the bite. Immediately, her expression turns enthusiastic, allowing a childish grin.
“That is delightful,” she says, taking some more. “How foolish I must seem to you.”
“It is not foolish to be cautious against the unfamiliar,” he assures her, pouring some red liquid into a glass. “Perhaps a bit of wine to wash it down?”
“Made of yew berries I imagine,” she says mockingly. “Yes, thank you.”
He pours her a glass, smirking at her jest. “Would you care to hear some verse?”
She nibbles on a bit of bread and cheese. “That sounds pleasing.”
Taking up a nearby book, he leisurely browses the pages. At once, his eyes narrow on a particular passage. Clearing his throat, he begins to recite in a soft, even tone.
“In dreams, existence breathes
Yesterday reciprocal, yet to be perceived
Touch of heaven, and pain of sorrow
Known before, sought thereafter
Belief in the fates, remember a choice
One that is desired, and the same needed
Dawn of tomorrow, Aphrodite in the gleam”
Tenaj considers the words. “Enchantingly serene. Who is the author?”
He turns a page. “The author appears to be unknown, but keep in mind that this book was written over a century ago.”
She forms a frown. “Disappointing, a piece so pleasant to go anonymous. I wish to hear more though.”
He smiles broadly. “It would please me.”
Hours pass as the two enjoy each other’s company. Tenaj sits up, letting her long auburn tresses fall over her shoulders. She looks thoughtfully at Argentas.
“You have given me a perfect morning. I shall accept the offer of your lord’s hand, naturally on condition of course.”
“My master will be most honored. I shall let him know immediately.”
She can no longer contain her aloofness. “Do not take me for a fool.”
Standing, her proclamation bewilders him. “Milady?”
“You may dispense with the charade,” she matter-of-factly states. Smirking and tilting her head, she continues pointedly. “You are no squire. You are Pageras Thenars, son of the nobleman Dragaras Orlan.”
He grins, bashfully turning his head downward. “It had been so many years, I thought I might disguise myself to you.”
“At first. However, your voice remembered itself to me as you read, and I became certain.” She gestures with her hand to the open air. “You would pick flowers from this very field and place them at my bedchamber when we were but children.”
He takes a seat next to her, stroking above her right ear. “And you would accept by wearing them in your hair at court.”
Without warning, Tenaj swiftly pounces and pins him to the ground. In a singular motion, she draws a small, glistening object to his throat as she straddles him.
“And what of your father?” she asks, her expression ardently curious. “Have you returned to finish his undertaking?”
“Regrettably, the wounds he suffered at Döeringin Tor finally took their toll not that long ago,” he coolly responds, unflustered by her actions.
Maintaining firm control, she looks down sorrowfully. “It does sadden me that he fell out of favor. He was a valuable emissary and champion, serving my father well.”
“Yes,” he offers, eyeing the weapon in her hand. “I see his blade still serves you equally as well, milady.”
Her tone becomes contemptuous, visibly irritated by his repeated courteousness.
“You may dispense with the formalities, Pageras. We are beyond such conventions. Two people as common as anyone else.”
“As you wish, Tenaj,” he assents, smiling sympathetically at her. Despite the situation, he assumes a disapproving air. “But I doubt those who work your father’s lands would so willingly agree.”
At that, she removes the dagger from his throat, allowing his free movement. Cautiously sitting up and leaning against the tree, Pageras folds his arms at his chest.
“And how is the good king, your father? Still campaigning I presume?” he asks, shrewdly acerbic.
She looks away, not allowing her anguish to be seen. “Yes, still. It seems he prefers battle to his own daughter, sending to my court only those advantageous to his desires.”
Pageras nods his head in agreement. “Indeed. And that has never suited you, has it? Being the docile, royal daughter?”
She turns to him, staring into his eyes. “Enough talk of such folly. As I said, you have given me a perfect morning. But, my heart is still in need of more for me to be so accepting.” She deviously grins at him. “And due to your deception, not to mention your still unanswered intentions, I insist on a penance.”
He leans into her, caressing the small of her back. “Anything you ask shall be yours. What is thy bidding?”
“I ask of you this,” she continues, scooting away from his grasp. “If you know me so well, you shall go on a quest in my name for the one thing surely to satisfy.”
He inches closer. “And what is that, milady?”
She looks vexingly at him, brushing a stray lock from her face. “Milady, if you please, demands that you content my heart with that which is truest in it. You have heard the legend of the Hinca Medres?”
He looks at her skeptically. “A tale of Shangri-La. Handed down to man by the gods, told through the centuries. So it is said.”
With a meditative gaze, she continues. “‘Spring of Solace’ the old ones called it, a place of paradise alleged to hold the truest harmony for those who can possess it.”
“And a myth when our ancestors, and their ancestors before, were born,” Pageras states pessimistically. “No one has ever beheld it by all accounts, let alone located it.”
Suddenly, a sound of thundering hoofs is heard in the distance. Puzzled, the two strain to see the source – a rider approaching from the castle. It is Kews Amir, captain of the royal guard. Drawing near, he pulls firmly on the reigns.
“Y-your grace,” he says in salutation, out of breath. “W-we have word of the king. You must come quickly.”
Tenaj hastily stands. “Wh-what news?”
“Y-your father fell in battle with the Persisians. A contingent of their Haars Mahnmaeler now marches toward us. I have dispatched scouts to confirm, but I insist you return to the castle.”
Pageras responds without hesitation. “How many of your men at the castle?”
Captain Amir looks at him in contempt. “Just the royal guard. Not enough against the apparent force that approaches.”
Unease reverberates from Tenaj’s voice. “I-I should ride to my father.”
“There is no way to know the dangers that await or if he even still lives, milady,” Amir soberly states. “Please, your highness, I insist you return immediately.”
Quickly thinking, Pageras offers an alternative. “They are scattered, but I have a small band of men only a few hours ride from here. I could return by the eve with them, and escort you to safety.”
Nervously, Tenaj hesitantly consents to the suggestion.
Pageras points to the captain, resolute in his commands. “Have your men bring in all able persons and supplies from the fields. Send out more patrols and barri-”
Amir indignantly interrupts. “I do not take orders from lowly squires, nor heed their advice.”
Shaken from her distress, Tenaj snaps at him. “This is no squire. He is Lord Thenars of Lbalwin, and you shall act as if the king himself speaks. Or you will find your head lying next to your body the next time your tongue displeases me. Is that understood, Captain?”
Horrified by her verbal lashing, Amir quickly changes his tone. “My apologies, your grace. I was not aware. By your leave, we shall make haste with the preparations.” He rides off toward the castle.
Pageras looks at her peculiarly. “I’m hardly a lord. You are well aware that your father made sure of that when he stripped mine of his lands after their-”
He pauses, searching for the proper word before continuing. “Disagreement.”
She stares angrily, seething with disgust. “Nonetheless, he should not have talked to you that way. It is still yours to be respected as both a nobleman by birth and as my guest.”
He puts his hands on her arms, stroking her calmingly. “Very well, Tenaj. If that is how you want it.” He grabs her at the waist, putting a kiss on her cheek. “Come, we must get you back.”
Despondent, she nods in agreement.
Pulling on the reigns, Pageras stops before a forebodingly grim tavern. Sordid as much as derelict. Making his way inside, he examines the dimly lit interior. A few lanterns burn at points, melted wax spreading over pit-scarred wood tables. He walks over to the bar, the proprietor standing behind.
“Good sir, I am looking for a disreputable old husk by the name of Estépar Snif.”
Smiling back through yellowed teeth and hollowed depths long since decayed, the man motions to a dark corner. Turning, Pageras thanks the man with a silver piece.
Walking over, Pageras stands before the table and stares for a moment at the half-conscious man slumped on it. He tosses a silver coin, the sound arousing the slumbering, burly beast. The man stares up through glazed eyes, angrily snarling at the disturbance. As recognition takes hold, his demeanor abruptly changes.
“Pageras! How are you m-my boy?” he says, slurring his words. “R-ready to fulfill the devil’s pact, a-are we not?”
Pageras takes a seat across from him. “I am well, but I see you have apparently fallen ill.” He leans across, whispering softly. “Thought I told you to abstain from any drink for the time?”
Estépar chokes on a swig of malt, bellowing drunkenly. “The hell you say! I c-celebrate the health of that swine of a king. May it be imminently r-ruinous!”
Pageras glances anxiously around the room. No one makes a motion of notice.
“Perhaps it is best if we do not discuss such matters so boisterously, given my own father’s activities following Döeringin Tor. Not to mention your own,” he matter-of-factly suggests, again scanning the surrounding wretchedness. “Even in a place whose inhabitants no doubt harbor the sentiment.”
Estépar takes another swig of malt, hiccupping and slurring further. “N-now that he is dead, we may never know the t-true depth of those activities. He made an agreement with that swine, and that was the end of i-it. Perhaps I could be conversing with the heir to the throne himself, had it not been s-so.”
Pageras grins. “But I doubt that conversation would be occurring in a place of such splendor.”
Estépar lets loose a mortifying howl, brown liquid running down his disheveled gray beard. “Indeed, we could instead be in that b-bowel stain of a palace!”
Pageras steers the conversation to other matters. “Enough nonsense. Aside from your usual appearance, is everything in order?”
Another swig of malt, dribbled as much as swallowed. “I t-take it a messenger arrived telling a t-tale of woe?” Appearing as though to vomit, a thunderous belch echoes from his throat instead.
Pageras looks at him with mocking revulsion. “Very pleasant. And you wished to be my squire. But yes, he did. The royal guard vainly busies itself for an impending attack as we speak.”
“I still say it’s r-risky, especially for you,” Estépar states, unexpectedly lucid. “I believe you stand to lose more than you know, my friend. Sure you want to go t-through with it?”
Noticeably uncertain, Pageras answers assuredly. “We are beyond such discussion. The path fate has chosen is already before us.”
Gulping the last of his drink, Estépar slams the empty cup upon the table. “Well then, wh-what are we waiting for?”
Pageras stands up from the table. “Assemble the men. Tell Datum to be prepared to leave in an hour.”
The ragtag troop makes its way through the forest bordering Castle Vèrpitörr. Approaching near the edge, the lead scout, a reticently mousy man named Jota, abruptly signals for the column to halt. Pageras and Estépar ride closer to inquire, observing a large force laying siege to the castle – the barbarous, elite warriors of the Persisian horde, the Haars Mahnmaeler. Only their equally coarse leader, Dahin Jadame, outweighs their grotesqueries in appearance and in battle.
Datum Goonu, Pageras’ experienced yet youthful deputy and confidant, rides up to the three to see for herself. Her svelte appearance deceptive, it hides a demeanor and warrior’s skill as ominous as her dark eyes.
She gestures to the scene before them. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall this being part of the plan.”
“It would appear our ruse had more truth than we knew,” Estépar states with chagrin, his intoxication less noticeable audibly though still obvious.
“I see Jota’s concoction is starting to take effect,” Pageras comments, contemplating the situation. “We have to act, go to their aid. At least, as far as concerns Tenaj.”
“That’s madness,” Datum interrupts, before Estépar can respond. “Aside from liberating riches from the king, we, and I in particular, did not sign up for any rescue mission. There isn’t even supposed to be a real siege. The royal guard was only supposed to be distracted by the threat of one while we slipped away with your precious princess.”
“Well, they do appear distracted,” Estépar jokes. “Besides, we have the element of surprise, and the cover of encroaching darkness.”
“Not to mention their flank is vulnerable,” Pageras rationally states, keenly analyzing the Persisian formation.
“We ride in swift, hitting them hard,” Estépar continues eagerly. “Then we turn into their middle, splitting them.”
“In all that confusion, they will no doubt retreat to regroup. Reinforced by the royal guard, we then hit them from the front.”
“That sounds like a great plan,” Datum chimes in, reluctantly relenting. “Why don’t we just save the horses and commit suicide now?”
“Look at the bright side,” Pageras says, grinning.
Datum looks at him with skepticism. “There’s a bright side?”
“Instead of scoundrels exacting a ransom, we’ll be heroes receiving a reward.”
“If we live to collect either,” she retorts, steering her horse back into position.
Estépar expresses a more favorable attitude. “Scoundrel has a nicer ring to it, but I suppose hero is just as good.” He raises an eyebrow, looking at Pageras. “Even posthumously.”
“Indeed,” Pageras agrees, sliding his sword from its sheath.
Well into the morning, the battle rages between the two sides. Flesh and steel clash in a thunderous clamor of advance and withdrawal before the castle walls. Sword and hammer find their fatal mark, the ground running deep with the carnage.
As the sun breaks the horizon and begins its ascent into the sky, the defenders make a final push to secure victory.
“The rest flee, my lord,” states Captain Amir, blood trickling from several minor wounds.
“Well done, Captain,” Pageras congratulates, himself similarly burdened. “Have your men continue the pursuit in the outlying areas, not ranging too far from the castle. They will need to re-garrison and re-establish the defenses.”
“Understood,” Amir acknowledges.
Datum hurriedly approaches on horseback as the two finish their discussion. Turning to face her, a worried rush comes over Pageras.
“Pageras, c-come quickly,” Datum gasps, clearly exhausted. “E-Estépar is grave. He calls for you.”
“See to the others,” he tensely states, forcing his tired mount into a gallop.
As he comes upon Estépar, he jumps from his horse and falls
to his friend’s side.
“Estépar?” he cries, lifting up his head. “Estépar? Y-you’ll be all right. You’ll be al-“
Estépar opens his eyes, coughing blood in the attempt to breath. “I r-reunite with your father on the s-shores of Tírnanoc. D-do not grieve an old man who has seen e-enough of this world.”
“Only as old as the most recent gray on your head, my friend,” Pageras teases, letting out a disheartened laugh. “You still have much to teach me of this world.”
His breathing labored, blood streams from the corners of Estépar’s mouth.
“I-I’m afraid I have but one m-more lesson.” Licking his lips, he draws a heavy breath. “T-take her from this place a-and let the past be the p-past. F-forget all else, all that h-happened.”
His eyes close, his chest stills. Pageras takes him in his arms, hugging as a son to a father. He lays his head gently on the ground, reciting a respectful prayer. “You will be remembered, always. Be as you were in this life, joined with the valiant and steadfast in the next.”
After a solemn moment, Pageras stands and remounts his horse. He gallops toward Tenaj, helping tend the wounded. Turning her attention, she stares at him through weary eyes.
“Do you mean to leave?”
“I do, but not without you,” he answers, heartfelt in the proclamation.
Warmed by the sentiment, she takes out his father’s dagger. “If you’re going, you should have this.”
“My father gave it to you as a gift,” he counters, noting fresh blood on the hilt. “Certainly, a fortunate forethought.”
“At least rest for a time,” she somberly pleads, noticing the crimson of his own wounds. “My handmaidens are quite skilled in the healing arts.”
“It would be best to go. This was only a raiding party. More are assuredly on the way.”
“Where is there to go? To my father?” she asks dejectedly, managing a half smile. “To Shangri-La, perhaps?”
He extends his hand. “If you are willing, we shall find it together.”
Guardedly, she takes his offering but without mounting. Her stare turns probing.
“Answer me this first,” she starts, “how much did you plan to exact from my father?”
Maintaining his composure, his expression nevertheless pales. She pulls her hand away, placing both on her shapely hips.
“Don’t act so surprised,” she states wryly, brimming with guile. “You knew from the start that I would question your motive, particularly given your unexpected appearance after all these years. How much?”
Reverently grinning, he concedes. “Everything, his entire kingdom.”
She continues, her tone exasperatingly flirtatious. “And am I worth it, worth a kingdom?”
He looks longingly at her. “And more.”
Wiping a tear from her cheek, she shakes her head incredulously. “You would have me believe your affections outweigh any desire for further retribution against my father?”
Once more, he offers his hand. “I make no guarantee, but trust that my love has always been yours.”
Contemplating his declaration, she again accepts his outstretched hand. Firmly, Pageras lifts her onto the horse and spurs the animal into motion.
As a fog rises from the valley below to meet the illuminated colors of dawn, the two ride out the castle’s gate to meet the gleam of the new day. Wrapping her arms around his waist and gently resting her head on his neck, she closes her eyes with a soothing sigh. The morning air cool, the warmth of their bodies engulfs each other.
- - -
I am a freelance writer, journalist and historian from St. Louis, MO. With degrees in history from the University of Missouri, I have contributed to several encyclopedic projects, scholarly journals and websites. A former editorial writer for a local community newspaper group, Newsmagazine Network (www.newsmagazinenetwork.com), I have written on topics ranging from socio-economic issues, local and national politics and international relations. My short-story fiction has featured in Sacred Twilight Magazine, and my poetry has appeared in Skyline Magazine, The Storyteller and Midwest Literary Magazine.
Labels: Steve Sagarra