in which flames rise from the valley of Sever
Sever was a sliver of nothing. It was a bend on the map, the scar of the eight hundred year old split between Gallia and Freesia. It had no castles, no monuments, and no large cities – only miles and miles of hills, grass, and sheep.
The last time Rhema had been to Sever, her father had carried her on his back through the hills in the middle of the night. She remembered being afraid, but she could not recall why.
This time it was day, and she had no idea where she was going. She road her horse over the unfamiliar grass. It struck her how strange it was that even fear could become a pleasant memory. The knowledge that everything came out well softened any unpleasantness she might have associated with Sever. Besides, she certainly was in no hurry to return to the prince and his entourage -- all smiling at her, all expecting her to fancy the prince the way that he, apparently, "fancied" her. He could keep his expensive tastes, prying friends, and complicated political life. All she needed was this countryside and this horse.
The horse buckled a little as it hit a hill going at a much faster speed than she intended. She pulled hard on the reins and would have flown over its head had not her foot become tangled in the stirrup.
“And he can keep this horse too!” she exclaimed. The brown beast neighed as she dropped herself down its side. She planted her feet on the wonderfully solid earth and rubbed her leather-burned palms against each other. The horse breathed and stomped its feet. Rhema patted its neck.
“I’m sorry, Felicity. I did not mean that. It isn’t your fault that I am not a good rider. Let us blame father for that for never buying me a pony when I was young. Speaking of my father, where is he?”
If she squinted, she could see him with her guards in the distance. He had arrived in Sever on the same day as she and the prince. Though she was the baroness now, her father made it a point to keep the matters of Sever as his business. More than that, he kept the safety of his daughter as his business. On hearing of her impending visit to an unquieted Sever, he had set out immediately to join her. Rhema was glad to have his company again, but doubted that he could add any more to her protection than the five armed men who also joined them on their ride.
She stood next to her horse on a hill while she waited for them to catch up. The December wind held its breath as she looked out over the edge of her world. The grass was browning and thin. From her vantage point, she could see down into one of the many small shepherding communities of Sever, and also up toward the lazy watchtowers on the border of Freesia. For a place with such a severe name, she had never been anywhere more peaceful.
CREAK-CHUG. A splash and a brief trickle of water. A shepherd girl, no older than thirteen drew water from a well faucet on the low part of the hill. The girl had hair of languid black, and the end of her apron was tucked into her waist, revealing dirty knees and bare feet. Her frost-chilled cheeks and nose glowed pink against white skin.
An icy wind blew over them from a southerly direction. Rhema pulled her shawl over her chest. The shepherdess expertly balanced a full water jug on her waist, holding her breath as the chill passed over.
“Are you not cold?” Rhema asked. The girl stared at her, not comprehending.
“Sind Sie eine Prinzessin?” the girl said so quickly and softly that Rhema was only able to recognize one word: "princess".
Rhema managed to reform her original question into the words, “Bist du kalt?”
The girl shook her head. She picked up a long stick with her free hand and used it to nudge her flock of three sheep in the direction of the village.
“Los! Los!” she said in a high, teasing tone to the sheep. One by one, they tottled down the hill toward the tall, four-walled hut that the little girl called home – one of the many spots on the landscape that constituted a town.
“She will be all right,” said Rhema’s father, arriving behind her with the five guards and two horses.
A rare smile reshaped Lord de Frees’ face. He went to his saddlebag and pulled out a silver-headed cane with the crest of Sever engraved in its hilt. He grunted and gave it to Rhema.
“Why are you giving me your cane?”
“Do you think I would give away my cane? Certainly not! This is a duplicate. It is yours, if you want it.”
She watched the reflections of the clouds move over its silver head. She had always liked her father’s cane. She had played with it when she was a girl, resulting in most of the scuff marks on it. This new cane had no scuff marks.
“Did I ever tell you how I met your mother?” said Lord de Frees, looking out over the border of Freesia.
“Yes. You have told me many times.”
“Have I?” He wrinkled his forehead. “Age has made a fool of my memory.”
“She was about that age, was she not?” Rhema indicated the shepherd girl in the distance.
“No. I was about that age. She was younger.”
“Thank you for coming, Papa.”
The Lord de Frees squeezed her shoulder and continue to watch the gray watchtower on Freesia’s border.
Suddenly, the guards who were with them stiffened and rode their horses around Rhema and her father. Down in the village, the shepherd girl’s parents pulled her inside. The indiscernible shouting of men’s voices could be heard on the opposite hill.
“Back to the house,” Lord de Frees said, pushing Rhema toward her horse.
“What is going on?” Rhema tried to ask. Arms came at her all at once from five directions and pulled her onto the horse’s back.
“There is trouble below,” the guard with a hand on her horse explained. “Your Ladyship must move to a safer location.”
“Trouble? What sort of trouble?”
“Go, Rhema.” Her father slapped the back of her horse so that it began to run. She gripped the reins. The guards rode so closely that she did not need to steer.
Down the hill and up another, again and again. She thought she might become sick. Finally, they arrived at the home of the Mayor of Sever, which was the only home in that county large enough or decent enough to accommodate the royal guests. Once they arrived at the skinny, triple-tiered house, they shuffled Rhema inside as if she were a parcel. The guards slammed the door and took up posts around it.
“Baron de Frees!” Randolf, the mayor of Sever, said with his thin German lilt. His bushy gray beard and whiskers bounced on his rotund chest whenever he moved his jaw. He hugged Lord de Frees and slapped him on the back.
“I have not been called that in a long time, old friend,” Lord de Frees said. “Do you remember my daughter, Mr. Randolf?”
Mayor Randolf bowed to her and said, “Ach, du meine Güte! But you do resemble your father, Baroness! Last I saw you, you were a little thing. Do you remember?”
“Not well, Mr. Randolf,” said Rhema. “Can you tell me what is happening?”
Mr. Randolf scratched the one bald spot on the top of his otherwise well covered head. “I regret to inform you that we have reason to believe that the rebels are still within our borders,” he said as if half expecting a rebel to be listening around the corner. “We had believed they were all fled, but not long ago, after Your Ladyship and the prince arrived, fires were set in the valley. An attempt has been made on His Highness.”
“An attempt!” No matter how much she did not want to marry him, Rhema’s stomach curdled at the idea of Prince Bastion being assassinated.
“He is unharmed. A shot glanced off his carriage. We are investigating the matter.”
Footsteps rumbled on the steps. Bastion, trailed by Mr. Highwater, the Duke of Middelwey, and an armed officer appeared in the front lobby.
“Is she safe?” Bastion said. His shoulders were firm, but his hands shook. He saw Rhema before anyone could answer him. “Are you safe?”
“Yes. I am fine.”
The prince nodded and breathed. “She does not leave this house,” he said to Lord de Frees.
“Yes, Your Highness.” Lord de Frees put his arm around his daughter.
Bastion rested a hand on the banister. His eyes momentarily strayed to the ground. The events of the day settled on him. Mr. Highwater waited silently for the prince to regain his composure.
“It is well that your father is not here as well,” said the duke to Bastion. “Else your head might bear an early crown, my prince.”
“That is insolent!” said Mr. Highwater.
“Do not gawk because I tell the truth. There is a disturbance in the kingdom, and what is the first thing we do? Bring the crown prince and his betrothed within shooting range of those that hate us. Should we not also send for the king and that milksop Fredrik? What about all the Grand Duchesses while we are about it? Let us put the entire monarchy in a row so that we may be made target practice.”
“You are unfair, sir,” said Mr. Randolf.
“No, Mr. Mayor. The world is unfair. I only live in it.” Duke Brys turned to the officer at his side and said, “Double the guard on the prince. Triple it on the baroness.” The officer looked to Bastion for confirmation.
“Triple the guard on me? I hardly think—“ began Rhema.
“Do as the Duke says,” Bastion said to the officer, giving no mind to Rhema’s words. “Let whoever we have remaining assist the local police in hunting down these bandits.”
The officer bowed and carried out his orders. The Duke gave a sideways glance at Rhema and gestured for the prince to follow him back up the stairs. Bastion followed. Their conversation as they walked was soft and fast, but Rhema distinctly heard the words, “...should never have let her come.”
Her father talked privately with Mayor Randolf and Mr. Highwater. They had business of their own. Men always had ‘business of their own.’ Rhema scoffed her feet as her new guards forcibly removed her to the library.
This new prison was smaller than the libraries she had become accustomed to, but it had thick walls and a thicker smell of must. Mrs. Randolf already occupied the room, drowsing in a chair in the corner. Across from her stood Marcus O’Connell, hands in his pockets, uncomfortable and bored with Mrs. Randolf’s comatose company. His face brightened when Rhema and three guards blundered in.
“Welcome, Baroness de Frees,” he said.
“How do you do, Mr. O’Connell?”
“I do just fine, though I must confess I’m feeling a mite bit forgotten. Not a man has taken notice of me since the trouble started. Nor woman either.”
“That is because they have more important matters to attend to than your entertainment.”
“I’m not complaining, miss. Merely observing.”
Rhema looked at Mrs. Randolf sleeping. “Is she all right?”
“Oh, she’s fine. Been like that for near half-an-hour.”
Rhema put her fingers on Mrs. Randolf’s arm, looking for a pulse. Mrs. Randolf snorted and tossed her head.
“I imagine this is not how you planned on spending your vacation,” Rhema said.
“Nor you yours, I’d wager. Though I make it a point to never waste too much time on making plans, as nothing ever happens precisely to plans anyhow. I always say eat, drink, and let time tend to itself.”
One of the guards pulled out a chair for Rhema to sit in, even though she had made no indication that she wanted to sit down.
“Indeed,” she said, accepting the seat and fiddling with her shining new cane.
“They didn’t come after you did they?”
“Whoever they are. Those freesie tossers that’re riding around setting fire to things, of course. You should have seen Bast. He was going on about how you were out there all exposed. Sent half the house out looking for you.”
“Nobody attacked me. I do not know why anyone would.”
“Don’t you? Tell me, where are you?”
“Sever, of course.”
“And who are you?”
“Rhema de Frees.”
“You are the Baroness of Sever. Now don’t you think anyone who wants to hurt this place might get the bright, shiny idea to hurt you as well? Especially with you soon to be the new princess.”
Rhema looked out the nearest window at the ominously quiet hills. Fear slithered inside of her like a coiling snake. Suddenly, the room grew big. Too big. Too many doors. Too many windows. Too many shadows. She shrunk in her chair, no longer feeling suffocated by the guards, but rather wishing there were more of them.
“Perhaps we should not have come,” Rhema said.
“Nah, the way I see it, you had no way of knowing the danger was still here. You couldn’t have done anything better for you and Bast than to come here yourselves. Shows good faith. Shows courage. People find that encouraging. God knows I’d never see a prince walking about in the slums where I’m from. Then again, this whole first attack might have been them setting a trap for the two of you, but as I said, you had no way of knowing what would happen.”
“A trap,” Rhema breathed.
“Probably not though,” said Marcus quickly.
Rhema’s father came through the door with a wrinkled note in his hand. He noticed Mrs. Randolf sleeping in the chair.
“Is she all right?”
“She’s fine,” said Rhema and Marcus simultaneously.
Lord de Frees’s eyebrows came together in the way they always did when he was worried. Marcus’s eyebrows echoed him in an uncannily similar way.
“Rhema,” her father said, “A note was left here this morning. I think you deserve to see it.”
Rhema took the note and read out loud the scrawled letters:
“Freesia, Freesia, mon seul pays, va maintenant et pour toujours être libre...
Pas de reine sauf Pénélope.”
The last line stuck in the bottom of her throat. She looked with worry at her father.
“I don’t suppose I can get a translation over here,” said Marcus.
“It... um... it is a line from the Freesian national anthem. ‘Freesia, Freesia, my only home, will now and forever be free.’ Then below that they wrote, ‘No queen but Penelope.’” Rhema’s shoulders lost their posture. “It is not going to work.”
“Me. The unification. A bi-national heir. Why would they take me? I am a Gall.”
“These people are radicals. They do not represent everybody,” Lord de Frees said.
“They represent enough,” Marcus muttered.
The sound of distant gunfire broke the air and clamored in their ears as hard as it would have if they were the ones being shot at. Marcus and Lord de Frees pulled Rhema away from the windows.
Mrs. Randolf woke from her nap in the corner with a start. Her wrinkled face and frazzled white hair gave her the look of a frightened mouse.
“My! Oh, my! What is that?” she yelled.
“Hush, Gertrude. There is fire down in the village,” Lord de Frees explained.
“Is that you, Baron?” She smiled. “It has been a while. I was so happy that you were going to give us a visit. I simply exhausted myself in preparation. Is that gunfire? Oh, dear. They haven’t come for you, have they, Baron? Because they should not. My husband made it very clear that they have no jurisdiction here.”
“No, Gertrude,” Lord de Frees said in a hushed tone. “This time it is my daughter, the Baroness, who is in danger.”
“What? That sweet, pretty little thing with the red hair?”
“That is my eldest. I am speaking of my younger daughter, Rhema. You do remember Rhema?”
“Oh yes, of course!” Mrs. Randolf said, giving no mind to her volume.
“Pleased to meet you again, Mrs. Randolf,” Rhema whispered.
“Muskrat. That is what I called you. You were such a bitty thing last time I saw you, all wet and frightened. Like a muskrat. Not like the other girl. She was so pretty.”
Rhema’s annoyance temporarily overcame her fear.
“If you don’t mind me saying so, ma’am, it might be best to hush up until the ruckus is ended,” Marcus said.
“Ooh, you have an unusual way of speaking about you,” Mrs. Randolf attempted to whisper. “Whereabouts do you come from, young man?”
“My first beau came from Ireland. Such a nice boy,” she said.
Shouting and hoofbeats echoed around the house. Mrs. Randolf took refuge in Marcus’s arm.
Over the shoulder of one of the guards, Rhema could see a thin pillar of smoke rising from the direction of the village she had just left. Footsteps thundered in the hall. An unseen door crashed open. Through the windows, Rhema could make out the profile of the prince running outside with a pistol in his hand.
“Where are they?” he yelled. Two soldiers flanked him, likewise armed. A deputy rode from the direction of the fire.
“Bastion!” The shout escaped Rhema’s throat, surprising even herself. Marcus caught her and pulled her back.
“Best to leave this matter to the boys, Muskrat,” he said.
Rhema scowled and shook him off.
“What has happened?” Mrs. Randolf asked, squinting at the window.
Outside, Bastion kicked the ground and shouted, “Damn it all!”
Rhema blushed and looked away, sensing she had seen a side of Bastion she was not supposed to see.
“It is over,” Lord de Frees said. He turned to Rhema and said, “You are leaving.”
“But I only just got here!”
Her father’s eyebrows constricted. She didn’t say another word. Bastion was no longer outside the window. He had vanished once more. The incredible, vanishing prince.
Moments later, Rhema found herself inside a coach and her father outside of it.
“I am not going without you,” she said.
“No you are not. I am leaving too.” The Lord de Frees checked their road and followed her inside. “If the Freesians figure out that I am here, my life may be in as much danger as yours.”
“Old misunderstandings, honeybee.”
The coach rolled. Rhema grasped its sides as if this gesture might make it stop.
“You said it was over. Is there still any danger?”
“That they have apprehended the criminals does not mean that you are safe.”
“That most certainly is what that means.”
“However, it is wise to be careful. There may be more conspirators yet to be uncovered. We are going home.”
“No, Papa, we are not,” Rhema said, “Turn this coach around!” She shouted to the coachman.
“I am the Baroness of Sever and soon to be Princess of Gallia. I am not leaving yet. Did you hear me, coachman?”
“But the prince himself said—“ the coachman tried to say.
“And who will ‘the prince himself’ answer to when we are married? Turn around. I will take what blame there is to be had.”
The coach lurched into a turn and carried them back towards the direction of the rising smoke. Rhema dizzied with the strange mix of fear and power that fought with itself inside her chest. She wrapped her fingers around the rim of the cabin window and inhaled the cold wind. The smell of grass and sheep became the smell of bonfire. Her father said nothing. For the first time in his life, he resigned to his child’s command.
They came over the hill that they had stood on only an hour before. Flames danced on what had been the shepherd girl’s village. A nearby wheat field had been ignited as well, and the flames reached over to dance on the roofs of sheds and houses.
Not far from where the coach stopped, five men knelt in the browned grass. Their horses, two of which had been shot, were tied to the post behind them. The men’s hands were tied behind their backs, and their heads bent over in false supplication. They took turns lifting angry eyes to monitor the actions of their captors. All of the bandits were in their twenties. By the way they dressed and carried themselves, Rhema could tell that they were gentlemen, not thieves or ruffians as she had expected. The rebellious elite. In a different world, any one of them could have been Marcus. In a different world, Marcus could have been any one of them. Thank God he is Irish and not Freesian.
One of the captives, his face bloodied from a beating, scowled at Rhema.
“Careful, baroness. Do not get too close to them,” said the sheriff of Sever, whose long black mustache matched the pattern on the hilt of the rifle he pointed at the bloodied man’s head.
“Baroness de Frees?” the bloodied man said. The other four instantly looked up at her also. She nodded.
The bloodied man spat at her. The sheriff hit him across the temple. Rhema gasped. The sound of the rifle butt coming in contact with the man’s skull resonated in her sternum as if she had taken a blow herself. It was the first time, she realized, that she had ever seen a man beaten.
“Come away,” her father said, gently pulling her by the elbow.
She and her father watched from a distance as desperate farmers threw buckets of water on the blazing field.
“Is this all my fault? This is my land. Should I not do something?”
“This is not your fault. This has been happening for years. There is precious little you can do to change it.”
Rhema looked at the silver headed cane in her hand. Reflections of orange flames danced over the engraving.
“I have decided to marry the prince,” she said. Her father simply nodded.
A few feet behind her, Prince Bastion, unseen, lowered the hand with which he meant to tap her on the shoulder and draw her near to him. Instead, he wiped the sweat from his brow, put on his worn, gray cap, and walked away.