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Authors: Catherine Gilbert Murdock

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BOOK: Princess Ben
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Anxiously I threw a cape over my nightgown and made
my way outside. "Ancienne herself is crying," a woman muttered as she huddled beneath a dripping eave. A trio of soldiers on horseback, desperate to pass, shouted at the growing throng.

Suddenly a great cry arose in Market Town, followed by a thick silence, as if a hand descending from the heavens snuffed the living noise from the earth. The crowd parted to reveal a soldier leading a horse and wagon. In the sputtering light I could not make out the soldier's face, but the slump of his shoulders announced tragedy. The shaggy draft horse moved with the inherent nobility of all honest laborers, and so caught up was I in the power of this image that it took me a moment to realize the wagon, still loaded with some poor farmer's seed potatoes, contained a body as well. Only when the women beside me dropped to their knees did I notice the golden crown and realize I was beholding the bloody, rain-drenched corpse of my uncle, King Ferdinand.

Behind the cart came other soldiers, and a spontaneous procession of mourning citizens, the women, and many men, weeping openly. Silence grew as the throng drained into the castle's inner courtyard; then the drawbridge rang again with clopping hoofbeats. Another cart horse appeared, led by a pair of heartbroken soldiers.

Shaking, willing myself to awaken from this horrible nightmare, I clung to the wall behind me. The cart passed. Inside I beheld the waxen and immobile face of my mother.

I staggered forward, deaf to my own cries, and clambered beside her. I twined my fingers in her icy hand, wiping the sodden hair and bits of grass from her face, searching for her sweet smile. Her body, still and twisted, did not move but for the rocking of the cart.

I spread my cape over us both, doing my best to protect her from the rain. "You'll be fine," I murmured. "Just fine. Sleep now..." Though my mind knew she had left this world, my heart could not accept it, and I poured all the love I knew onto her lifeless form. Suddenly, I turned to the soldiers: "Father! Where is my father?"

They shifted, avoiding my eye.

"Please! Tell me, I beg you..."

At last, one of them spoke. "No one knows, miss." He swallowed convulsively. "He's gone."

***

All that night King Ferdinand's body lay outside the castle. Every Montagne man, woman, and child capable of travel came to pay respects, their tears mingling with the desolate
rain, and by morning the windows, flagpoles, and people were draped in black crepe as the wool merchants of Market Town emptied their warehouses.

My mother lay in the castle courtyard as well, and I refused to leave her side. I can scarce recall any detail from that swirl of sodden pain, the useless words of solace offered by neighbors and friends. I craved every moment with her, and moreover wanted to hear immediately any news whatsoever of my father. Hour by hour, soldiers replaced the lantern at her head with a fresh taper. Search parties, filthy and exhausted, returned for reinforcements, and by their stance alone I could tell they had naught to report. The entire valley roiled with confusion, the terror abetted by the downpour. Dawn arrived at last, lightening the cold fog, with no sign of Xavier the Elder or my father. Soldiers returning from the tomb reported in whispers that their nocturnal efforts had reduced the site to mud, defeating any further tracking. The news drove me closer still to my mother's icy corpse.

As tradition dictated, interment took place that afternoon. A formal memorial service would occur months or years hence following completion of a tomb for King Ferdinand, and for my mother as well, a princess by marriage if not temperament. At the moment, however, the bodies
required burial without delay, however much the sky cried its relentless drizzle.

In the confusion and turmoil, I was overlooked or indulged by everyone, allowed to accompany my mother's body to the gravesite and to give her one last embrace as she was sealed in a simple wooden coffin. I still wore the heavy cape I had donned when first I left our home so many hours before, and the sopping wool dripped cold water down my neck whenever I peered toward Ancienne, forever anticipating that the fog would part to reveal some sign of my father. The chill mingled with my grief and exhaustion, and standing at the graveside, listening to the drone of the priest, his words devoid of intimacy or comfort, I broke down completely.

"Why do you all stand here?" I shrieked, my voice carrying across the throng. "Why aren't you looking for him? He's out there, somewhere, and you don't even care! I'll find him myself, then. I will! I'll find him myself..." My rush toward the mountain was stopped at once by kind hands, and unkind hands as well, accompanied by hisses that I must behave myself before the queen, who stood at the graves' head in a black veil, as rigid and unmoving as a corpse.

Collapsing into sobs, I did not notice the crowd stiffen,
the whispers as mourners craned to observe some late arrivals to the cemetery. Not until I was led away did the sight register: a score of horsemen clothed in black, their scabbards empty and pikes dulled, incongruous in some discordant way. Only when I was returned to our empty apartment, still sobbing, did I realize in an illtimed flash of clarity that each of the horsemen wore on his chest the scarlet dragon of Drachensbett.

For my grandfather's killers—our country's sworn enemies—to appear at this moment, and late for the ceremony at that ... My father, I knew, would want to hear this most disturbing news. I must tell him. He must return so that I could.

TWO

The country of Montagne consists of a single rich valley contained on three sides by snow-topped mountains. The fourth side, conversely, drops precipitously into a cliff accessible only by switchbacks long ago carved into its flank. Swift streams lace the valley floor, weaving into the Great River, which plunges over this cliff in a most wondrous, ever-changing waterfall. Strategically placed aside this cascade at the valley's sole point of entry is the ancient stronghold of Chateau de Montagne. Its massive stone walls rise sheer from the cliff itself, while its valley side protects the bustling community of Market Town quite as a mother hen nurtures her chicks.

Looming over valley, castle, and town is Montagne, the kingdom's namesake, its symbol, and in many respects its soul, so well demonstrated by the word
montagne
itself. Not "the mountain" or "the grand mountain" or "our mountain,"
but simply "mountain," as though no other hill or alp or Everest had any conceivable significance. Indeed, since time past knowing valley people have spoken of this cloud-banked pinnacle as a living creature with powers beyond human intelligence. "Ancienne," they call her. Old One. "She's brooding today, Ancienne is," men will say, watching storm clouds gather around the peak. Soon enough, a brutal wind will sweep down Montagne's slopes, sending shepherds hurrying to their flocks, and housewives to their laying hens.

According to Montagne legend, the mountain has forever been the abode of giants. Long ago a traveling pair of sorcerers, husband and wife, scaled the cliff into the valley, and the woman cured the giants' chilblains with ointments and the gift of fire. In gratitude, the giants built Chateau de Montagne out of the living rock of Ancienne, and from that castle the couple founded the kingdom of Montagne, using their magic to shield the country and its people from harm.

As a child I adored hearing this legend and insisted my father recite it almost nightly. It is perhaps significant that the two of us combined this story with that of Drachensbett, our neighbor and eternal foe. That kingdom possessed the land surrounding Montagne, which they called
Drachensbett,
or "Dragons' Bed."They asserted that dragons occupied Ancienne's icy peak and that their royal family itself originated from these mythic beasts.

Our country had no objection to such tales, for every people has a right to its foundation myths. But unlike Montagne, Drachensbett could not keep its spoons out of other men's soups. In its rapacious lust for expansion, it had attacked our small kingdom countless times throughout our history. Were it not for the natural protection often cliff, the strategic placement of Chateau de Montagne, and our own innate determination, Montagne would be but a shire ruled by the self-proclaimed descendants of dragons.

To be sure, independence required no small amount of vigilance. Threat of war a century earlier had spurred expansion of the perimeter walls; within these new walls were built fresh barracks and the apartment above that served as my childhood home. In my grandfather's time, Drachensbett again assembled an army. My grandfather, King Henri—"the Badger," as he was dubbed for his relentlessness (and also, I have been told, for his short yet burly physique)—employed every possible diplomacy against this more powerful opponent, at the same time improving his military defenses until the castle could not have more perfectly resembled its spiky hedgehog emblem. Unlike hedgehogs, however, men
are susceptible to the promise of gold. Drachensbett agents enticed a malleable Montagne guard to open the gates of Market Town one dark night. Too late alerted, Henri nevertheless gathered his men, and, true to his name, led a ferocious counterattack against the menace. So fiercely did the Badger fight that the Drachensbett men were forced back across the drawbridge, through Market Town, and down the cliff. What had begun as assured conquest culminated in a rout. Not without price, however, for the Badger's glorious efforts left him mortally wounded, and he perished ere the sun rose over the unconquered lands of Montagne.

My Uncle Ferdinand, though scarce in his majority, accepted the crown and scepter that very morn, and rallied his disheartened people. His first act as king was to commission a tomb for his father high on the slopes of Ancienne. Each May on the anniversary of this famous battle, Ferdinand and his brother Walter, my father, traveled to the tomb to honor their father's passing. My mother and I joined them, as did the most honored veterans who had fought at the Badger's side.

On these outings, enthralled as I was with tales of Ancienne's magical occupants, I searched for elves and giants' footprints but found only chiding songbirds, and once
glimpsed a fox disappearing into the brush. While the adults spoke and prayed, I tied chains of wildflowers that I laid across my grandfather's tomb in a manner my parents, to my pride, seemed to find quite moving. The solemnity of the holiday and the beauty of the mountainside bedecked in flowers and emerald grass, the cloud-shrouded pinnacle splitting the heavens far above my head, always left a lasting impression.

***

Curiously, for all the suffering and fear that Drachensbett has inflicted on my country and my family, I have very few childhood memories of our foe. Just as a violent sea storm fades in exhaustion, leaving the coastline to heal itself, so too did Drachensbett's martial impulse wane—so it appeared—in the three decades following the Badger's victory, and both countries flourished in the relief of peace.

I do recall one exchange following my father's return from yet another diplomatic expedition to clarify our nations' precise boundaries, for the snowbound heights of Ancienne, impassable as they were, had never been mapped, and this predicament sporadically occupied the governments' attention.

"Renaldo"—the current king of Drachensbett—"has a
son, you know," he informed me as I made short work of the sweets he had brought, a Drachensbett specialty of dried fruit, caramel, and nuts.

"Yes,"my mother said. "A most difficult labor, I heard..." As a healer, she was forever seasoning our conversation with medical gossip.

He grinned. "Well, the boy's healthy enough now. Perhaps you two will marry someday."

I interrupted my gorging long enough to pantomime violent retching.

"Walter!" Mother scolded. She blamed him, with good cause, for my unruly behavior.

I struggled to speak through the gluey caramel: "Did you—did you see any dragons?"

"Oh, all kinds." He grinned. "A fire-breathing kind, another green one that—"

"They have nothing of the sort!" my mother informed me. "At least not when they're awake."

"Come now, Pence," my father began, addressing her by her childhood nickname, derived from the fact she was small as a penny. "It's naught to get riled about—"

"What do you mean, 'awake'?" I asked.

"She means they only dream about dragons."

"You mean there aren't
really
dragons? Not even on Ancienne?" Disappointment surged through me.

Mother smiled. "I'm afraid not, darling. And the sooner they stop blathering about dragons' beds and dragon blood, the better off we'll all of us be. Now go wash your hands before you begin attracting flies."

I could not help but wonder, that night and later, why my father would even mention my marrying someone who came from a country that my mother so obviously disliked. I recall wondering that distinctly, while somehow missing the obvious connection that this boy was a prince and that I, the niece of a king, was a princess.

***

So often warfare is preceded by rumors that swirl about the populace, triggering anxious preparations. But the murder of King Ferdinand struck the peaceful residents of Montagne without the slightest murmur of forewarning.

The royal party, as best could be understood, had been ambushed as they stood at the Badger's tomb. My mother had been attacked first, stabbed in the back a half-dozen times. Ferdinand must have raced to her aid, for his forearms, shoulders, and face had been slashed repeatedly, by a
poisoned blade no less. Naught but poison could explain his perishing, for his wounds were not fatal, and his skin even in death bore an unnatural greenish tint.

As for my father and Xavier the Elder, no sign could be found of them whatsoever. The first search party, sent out by the queen when the foursome failed to return at the designated hour, scoured the tomb site, navigating more like ships than men through the rain. A second party, led by Xavier the Younger (son of Xavier the Elder and second in command of the Montagne army after my father), had climbed higher and farther, to no avail. For all their crawling and calling, no footprint or blaze or drop of blood could be found in the mire. By all appearances, the two men had vanished.

BOOK: Princess Ben
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