“They have declined our offer for diplomatic compensations, prince.” The minister hung his head.
Prince Drykar nodded. First they decline the gifts of apology and then the offer for compensations. “In that case, we have no option but to fight. Their army is marching towards us even as we talk.”
“ They mean to launch their attack in another two days, prince.”
“Thanks for the information, minister.”
Drykar ran upstairs, skipping steps as he went. Inside the king’s chamber, the prince found his father nestled inside the many folds of his blankets. He went to his father’s side to touch his forehead. A single bead of sweat traced down the side of his face.
“Father,” he whispered, delicate as a glass.
The king’s eyes blinked open, the weight of his illness sunk deep inside them. His breathing was ragged. He looked at his son, his face void of expression.
“How are you?” the prince asked him.
“Old and cheated upon,” he complained weakly.
Drykar’s eyes descended down to the foot of the bed.
“What brings you here?” the king questioned.
“The war is to begin in two days.”
“Two days! Damn that. I am in no fit state to war.”
Drykar shook his head, “You needn’t, father. I will win this. I promise-”
The king held a hand up. “ No more of your promises. All had been going well. You brought this down upon us. You and your shenanigans. If there was ever a thing I wouldn’t have even dreamt of, that is this – that you would conceal important matters from me, that you’d bring down this dishonor upon us.”
Drykar swallowed his guilt.
The king sighed at last. “Win, by all means. Came back victorious. Albeit, all this bloodshed could have been avoided. Millions slain, Drykar, for one man’s reckless love.”
Then he sank back into his bed, breathing heavy.
“Leave now,” he ordered, and the boy prince shuffled out guilty and unwilling.
The next morn, as the prince practiced his swordplay in the fighting ground, Synnefro came to him with tidings. “ Cedra’s whereabouts have been found.”
Drykar’s eyes lit up. “Tell me about it.”
“ She’s with a healer at the banks of the Arlena river, by the woods. She’s been wounded mortally and hasn’t woken in three days. Her breathing is labored and her life ebbing, the healer woman says, but she is fighting hard to live.
Fear clouded Drykar’s handsome face. “What ha-” he shook his head, resolute, “take me there right away.”
The two of them set out to the forest. As they entered the seams of the woods, the golden sun’s heat melted away into a stark gloom. Afternoon shadows of tall trees crept across the soil. They rode further and further into the desolate stillness till the shy trebles of rushing waters hit their ears from a short distance.
“The river,” Drykar breathed, hiking up his reigns.
The dense tangle of trees abruptly faded into a coppice to reveal a brilliantly gleaming river snaking its way through the woods. The water glinted like gild in the sunlight as it capered forward.
“A little further ahead, I believe.” Synnefro said.
They rode along the river bank for about three-fourths of an hour, searching for a cottage. In the end they came upon a shady haunt of trees. Adjoining its branches stood a small wooden cottage, colored leaves playing with the wind at its front.
“This one,” Synnefro pointed out.
At the sound of the horse hooves, an old hag shambled out. Veins of wrinkles etched over her face and kindly hands. She stood rooted for a minute, staring at them owlishly.
“The prince, are you?” she asked then.
“The prince,” Synnefro agreed.
She averted her eyes to Synnefro. “You were the one I met the other day.”
He nodded. “How is Cedra?”
“Come in,” she turned around and shuffled in.
They followed. The inside of the cottage was shady but warm. A small firewood cot was pushed against a wall. A compact mud shelf was stacked with herbs, earthen pots and pestles. A pair of roughspun covers and pants were kept folded atop. But apart from this… it was empty!
“Where’s Cedra?” Synnefro demanded.
The hag exhaled. “I met foragers yesterday when I had gone to the seam to pick out the night bloom that eases my aging. In the exact same place where I had found the wounded girl and the corpse three days ago. They seemed to be looking for someone. Fearing the girl’s life I rushed back to the cottage and rowed her across the river to my friend’s hut in the neighboring state.”
Synnefro looked like he had been slapped. Drykar looked on, incredulous, a bit of the fear that had recently receded returned to his face.
“Do not fear though,” she went on. “ My herbs have kept her body and soul together through this journey in the cold of the night. She will be taken care of much better at my friend’s. His is a bigger cottage with more facilities and supplies. He has more people to take care of him. Yet I told him to keep her secluded till she returns back to full breath…” then passing to close her eyes a moment, she resumed, “…if she does ever return. But I have informed that she is the veiled princess of our state. The prince’s own bride-to-be. He will keep her and the secret safe, I can vouch.”
Prince Drykar pursed his lips and closed his eyes, trying to curtail his bitterness. I thought I had found her at last.
“Take us there. Right away,” the prince commanded.
She looked at him pleadingly. “Right away? I’m afraid I amn’t hale-”
“RIGHT AWAY!” interjected Drykar.
“Very well then.” She lead them to a coracle. By then the first pink streaks of the evening were starting to emerge. A chillness was returning to the world. Soon, night would be about them. But the river, though wide, wasn’t uncrossable.
Ten minutes they rowed to the other shore, the coracle gliding smoothly under the boys’ efforts. On the other bank, they helped the hag down and headed back into the woods.
In a while, they were at the seams of the state. The trees were sparser here, the forest itself narrow as an hourglass’ center. Guards stood along the perimeter. When they saw the prince, they bowed at once, letting him pass without questions. Further ahead, the woods widened once more and the shadows grew denser – like impoverished humans with paltry clothing pressed against one another for warmth against the chillness. Vines circled the Earth, looping out and dipping in. Deceptive traps. Slowly they made their ways through them to match the old woman’s speed.
By late evening they stood outside a huger cottage of brick and wood, Cottage was an understatement. This one was a humble brown mansion. Several stories rose to the sky. The wood was polished lavishly. Yet this huge structure had the air of simplicity to it.
“Mijorc is the state healer,” the hag announced, proud.
“You meant to keep her identity undisclosed here?” Synnefro looked aghast.
“This is a busy place. But secretive if Mijorc means it to be. Come,” she ushered them into the building.
In the lobby, a brown skinned, muscular man of about forty years received them. His shaved head gleamed in the light.
“Ah! Vithura,” he greeted the hag with a smile. On noticing Prince Drykar and Synnefro, the smile melted into an expression of intrigue. “You’ve brought guests with you.”
“The prince and his brother. We have business with Mijorc, Carlko,” the hag whispered.
“The prince!” he exclaimed, “to what do we owe this honor?”
“Carlko, Mijorc if you don’t mind.”
“Yes,” he murmured, slightly disappointed, then vanished into one of the labyrinthine corridors.
In about ten minutes, the bald man returned. “He summons you to the fifth floor,” he said. ‘Interestingly, for he doesn’t let any of us there.”
“The fifth floor.” Vithura nodded.
To walk with the old woman’s speed, the fifth floor might have as well been the fiftieth, and half a month might have lapsed in the mean. In the end, they were there, Drykar’s heart beating with restless expectancy and Vithura panting.
There were just two rooms in the corridor. At their arrival, a voice issued from the one on the right. “Come in,” a steady, deep voice permitted.
Lead by Vithura, they followed. A warm gush, as of life, welcomed them, a respite to the dead cold of the night. The room was honey and ochre with wooden shelves, pots and delicate vials of potions decked all over. Queer instruments furnished the room – a hanging mud pot, a pole with branches that ended in a spongy ball, charts written in glyphics. Watered trickled down a stone in one corner. To the end stood a bed with white linen covers and a grey duvet. A mound of a person was nestled beneath the duvet. A lean man with a long white beard and greying hair that fell to his shoulders stood over the bed. His wizened hazel eyes scrutinized the newcomers as they filed in.
“Cedra,” Drykar rushed to the bedpost at once.
“Child,” the old man cooed,” I am afraid she hasn’t woken yet. Her slumber has spanned three days already, despite Vithura’s potions and pastes and mine own. But her heart beats, faint and tired.”
“No,” the prince shook his head. “Please, do something. Bring her back. I’ll honor you the way you want. Anything, anything you need…just please.” Tears welled in his yes and rolled down despite himself.
Just then, the girl on the bed stirred, a moan escaping her mouth.
Everyone moved at once. Drykar caressed her cheek, “Cedra,” he mumbled. Synnefro kneeled down beside his friend. Mijorc strode to the bedpost, surprised. And Vithura let out a faint gasped.
Cedra’s eyes opened slowly, blinking. When she saw Drykar kneeled over her, a smile inched its way through her face. “ Drykar,” she whispered painfully “I have been waiting for you.” Her breath was ragged and heavy, filled with all the effort of pulling together her forcefully slipping life. The side of her face sported a cut as well. Her skin burned like coal, releasing hot waves into the air around.
“The healer extended a glass towards her, filled with a thick olive green liquid. “Drink this, it will help your fever,” he told her.
Drykar took the glass from the old man, and tilting her head up carefully, fed her the potion. She took a sip, but it all came frothing out again, and she slumped back, coughing violently, her entire body shaking with the effort. Mijorc frowned, taking the glass back.
Once the coughing ceased, she whispered, “we all have to leave someday, healer. There is no point in fighting for what is lost. I only wanted to stay till I saw him. Now that I have, I’ll slip out of this body with a smile.”
“Cedra, no. Stop blabbering,” Drykar ordered hotly.
“What happened to you? How -”
“How did I become like this?” she told him the entire story. By the time she neared the end, her words were starting to sag and her breath was rasping. She lost track of what she was talking about and forgetting the moment, her story and all those around her, she started muttering to herself of strange, distant things. Everyone exchanged worried glances.
And then her blabbering stopped, and so did all other movement. She lay still and unmoving, pale as fear. Mijorc immediately put his hands over her heart and shook his head. “The music has left her heart. There’s only silence in place of steady beats.”
“No, that’s not possible. Please, come back.” the prince clutched her hand desperately. “She’s not dead, she can’t.”
At the same time, a massive conch shrieked from miles away.
Drykar looked up in the direction, dread diffusing into his bloodstream. Silence stole the entire world for a moment, ringing it entirely white.
Then, reality returned in the form of Synnefro’s words.
“The war has begun in our state,” he confirmed.
To be continued…
© 2019 Sahana Narendran