Her Highness

Once, the Five Kingdoms of Albion had been at peace, but that peace had started to shatter when the Court of Camelot was broken by the treachery and evil of one Knight, Mordred, and his greed for power.
Now, it’s been almost ten years since Mordred slew Arthur Pendragon at Camlann, ten years since Ygraine and Duran fled Camelot in search of safety. It’s been six years since Mordred found and captured them.
But Ygraine Pendragon is bordering on twenty years old, and she is through with the whole of Albion thinking her and her brother are dead. She is the daughter of the great King Arthur, and she is done with allowing her cousin to sit on the Throne of Camelot, the throne which he usurped.
When bonds are broken, betrayal occurs, hard decisions are made, and lives are lost, who will lose and who will conquer? How will the Princess, a lost heir to Camelot, fair when this become more than just an effort to rid the Kingdoms of Mordred, and instead become a war between light and dark?

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27. 24

 

 

 

 

24

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I would rather have seen my brother battered and bruised. It would not have hurt my heart so much to see that. But no, the kindness of aggressive bruises was not the state he was in. Instead only the faintest trace of a bruise was still noticeable just under his left eye.

    Duran looked . . . fine. And under any other circumstances I would feel elated by happiness, but my soul felt crushed and a shiver slithered over my skin. It was an accumulation of several things that made an unnerving feeling coil in the pit of my stomach.

    His clothes were the first difference I had spotted—they were fine and rich. The second was that he was clean shaven. The third was that his hands were not shackled, though I had expected them to be. But the main difference, the one that hurt, were his eyes.

    There were no dark circles under them, but it wasn’t just that. Those eyes that for years had been full of emotion, that I’d only have to look into to gauge his mood, were now lifeless and flat. They were no longer hazel brown, but a dull mud brown with small pupils.

    Everything about his was . . . flat. From the way his arms hung straight by his sides to the straight line of his mouth.

    There was no emotion to be had in him, he was emotionless. And emotionless was so unlike my brother. So unlike my Duran.

    “What has he done to you?” I repeated. Both my hands were curled to my chest. His flat eyes flickered to mine, and I hoped beyond hope that there would be some flicker of feeling . . . but he simply stared, and it was a stare that gave both no recognition and no surprise. It was just a stare. To him I was just there. To him I was just on the other side of the mirror, so close but so near and so . . .

    So not worth caring about.

    “Duran . . . brother . . .” I tried again. And again there was nothing. His stare bore into mine, but where mine eyes were brimming with the sting of tears his didn’t even change. Not even slightly did they change.

    Somewhere in the far recesses of my mind I hoped that this, this, was all just an act. I hoped that he was simply acting as a shadow of himself. But I knew my brother was not that good an actor, not good enough to be this convincing. Not good enough to seem this blank.

    My heart felt as if someone had placed an anvil on it. And at the same time it felt like it was slowly being dissected.

    There was a tut from the other side of the mirror, and Mordred came back into view. His face wore a hardly concealed, smug smile and a mixture of victory and hatred burned in his dark eyes. “How rude of you, Duran, to not say hello to your sister after being parted for so long.”

    Fire blazed through my veins at the bastard’s words, turning hurt and pain into flaming fury. I blinked my unshed tears away hastily. My hands dropped from my chest to curl into claws at my sides. Whereas my brother was blank, I was feral.

    “What have you done to my brother?” I snarled. “And answer me straight, Mordred. I’d have it with your lies and your deceptions and your skimming of answers. What have you done to Duran?!”

    “I find people much easier to handle when they’re like puppets,” Mordred said calmly and ran a hand through his hair. I wanted to slap his face, or gouge my nails down his cheeks. “And everyone knows that puppets need a puppeteer.”

    I wanted nothing more than to drive a dagger through his eyes, and so wished he was here in person instead of cowering behind this mirror. But I needed to keep my anger under a leash; because nothing good had come from the last time I had let it consume me. “Why? What do you gain from what you have done?”

    “Oh, he’s been like this for so very long, a compliant dog to his master. And you, you stupid girl, had just been too foolish to see it. Had you looked into your brother’s eyes properly the night you escaped, you would have seen that he is no more than a shell of himself. It took a while to break him, but, oh, was it worth it. Your brother is my puppet, and has been for months.”

    A shiver spider-walked along the ridges of my spine. I staggered back a couple of steps, colliding none too gently with the back of Gawain’s chair. I was aware of the people that still stood in circles around me, though some had left, with their stares moving between Mordred and I wordlessly. I was aware of Cyrus and Lochru watching me carefully, aware of the way Gawain had moved away because his brother had not come to speak to him—not really—but rather to taunt me, and had pulled Aoifa back with him, aware that Merlin stood close to his son as he stared at the mirror.

    Lastly I was aware of Mordred’s laughter, deep and loud as it resounded through the room.

    “Did you truly think it was a coincidence that you escaped but your brother did not? Did you think that it was you who lost those guards in the woods? Did you think I didn’t know about any of it? I knew about all of it, all the plan, because your brother told me!” Mordred seemed to be boasting now, his lips shaped into a large smile. “I allowed you to escape; I called back the guards who followed you into the southern end of the Tangled Woods. I let you go because you’re right where I want you, far from your home.”

    “Why are you telling me, us, this?” I asked. Honestly, I was confused. I cocked my head to the side, my anger and upset momentarily forgotten.

    “Because there is no way you can win!” He half-shouted, and victory burned in his eyes. “There is no way you can defeat me, little Pendragon girl! You have no weapon that can hold up against me—no mortal weapon can harm me for I am magik. I am dark magik, and I cannot be killed by your swords. You have no magik weapons in your possession, and nor shall you ever do.” That he had addressed to the room at large, but then he met my eye once more as he said, “And you, Pendragon, if we meet on the battlefield, the only person standing between you and I shall be your brother. You shall have to kill him to reach me, and I highly doubt you are capable of that.”

    I looked at my brother over his shoulder, my dear brother, whose eyes were narrowed and whose hand lay on the pommel of the sword I hadn’t realised he had until then. He looked at me as if he were ready to kill me . . . at least that was better than the dead look. Maybe he was ready to kill me with his hands, but I would never be ready to kill him with mine.

    Duran was my brother, and I would never be able to kill him. Mordred had been smart to break my brother, for he was my one weakness. I could kill any number of men, but poise my own brother against me and . . . and I would rather he kill me.

    “You are weak, Ygraine Pendragon. You are weak because you love. Haven’t you realised by now that love equates to pain?” Mordred murmured. “You are so very weak.”

    I scrunched my eyes shut for a moment, and when I reopened them I saw that both my brother and Mordred had disappeared. Just like that they had gone and the mirror had transformed back into its original surface, throwing back a reflection of the room. Throwing back a reflection of my broken self.

 

X

 

The next events happened in a sort of whirlwind blur. At first I had wanted to smash my fist against the glass of the mirror so that is shattered into pieces, but then I’d changed my mind and turned before stalking out of the room. Whatever look I’d had on my face, livid determination, had been enough to cause servants and residents in the corridors to shrink back.

    I’d hurried straight to my rooms, ignoring the maids that were cleaning the main chamber as I’d moved into my all but bare dressing room and started shredding my dress. I’d hurried into a pair of trousers and tunic, changed my shoes into boots, and shrugged on my thickest cloak.

    It was when I was about to leave the room when I realised what I was doing, realised that I was acting as if I was about to head off to Camelot, and how stupid that plan was because I wanted to kill Mordred—yes, of course I did—but I wouldn’t kill my own brother.

    And I had nothing to kill Mordred with, neither my sword nor my dagger were blessed with, or born from, magik. I was just a damned mortal incapable of killing someone I hated—Mordred was right, he was going to win. He was always going to win, because magik always trumps non-magik.

    I didn’t even have a chance to face him, to try, since Gawain had judged that I would not be allowed. My cousin would still go to battle with his brother, despite all of it, and he would die on that bloody battlefield just as my father would. And Gawain, unlike me, would kill my brother to get to his, because my brother was a puppet and therefore collateral damage. Mordred had set the course to war, and Gawain would follow through with it whatever the cost.

    Brother would go against brother, just like uncle had gone against nephew, and the latter would come out victorious.

    I felt the world shift underneath my feet, and it strangled the breath out of me. History was going to repeat itself. Different circumstances, one had fought Mordred to end him and the other would go up against him to free a Kingdom, but history was turning the wheel back around to ten years ago. History was bringing itself back round to imitate the day I’d lost my father.

    I couldn’t lose my cousin too. And I couldn’t lose my brother in the midst of it all. I would have nothing left; I would be a princess without a family, a Kingdom, a home.

    I would become the lost princess once again, just when I had been found.

    I allowed the sobs to rack my body as I realised just how little I had, and how easily the remnants could be taken away from me. I was the little Pendragon girl, I put on a brave face but inside I was terrified. I pressed my back against the closed door of my dressing room, a hand over my mouth and the other clenched to my stomach, and used it to slide down onto the stone floor as tears escaped my eyes.

    For once, I let myself cry.

 

X

 

I’m not sure how long I let the tears and the pain of realising that all efforts would be for nothing, realising that nothing of this world could stop Mordred, consume me and keep me pinned to the floor of my dressing room. It could have been minutes or it could have been hours.

    Eventually I pulled myself up off the floor and headed over to the mirror in the corner of the room, slotted between two large trunks, to look at the reflection of myself and what I had become.

    Sylvia had been right, my eyes were sad, they were bright with tears and reflected the misery I had endured these past ten—no, twelve—years. There was so much sadness in the peridot green, and even when I tried to smile it didn’t lessen any. And it wasn’t just the sadness in my eyes that showed a helpless, scared girl; it was present in the darkness under my eyes, the slight hollowness in my cheeks, the downward turn of my lips, and all the way down to the scars on my hands and the slump of my shoulders. I could trick myself into thinking that I was brave, I could trick myself and others into thinking that I wore thick armour . . . but the truth was that I wasn’t brave, and that armour had shattered long ago.

    Cyrus had told me once that I was rather beautiful, and Aoifa had called me fair, but they must have been looking at something I couldn’t find in myself. All I saw was my mother’s face, my father’s eyes, and a broken person.

 

X

 

I was still standing in front of the mirror when Aoifa found me. She had a calm, tentative expression on her face, and gave me a small smile that made her scar more pronounced. I envied her for it, how she could bare her scar and still be beautiful, still be happy—my scars, the lot of them, reminded me starkly of the memories behind them and made a sadness coil in my heart.

    Did Aoifa secretly feel like that when she glanced in a mirror and was reminded of why, how, she had attained that scar?

    “Are you alright?” she asked hesitantly. One of her hands came to rest on my shoulder.

    I shook my head and balled my hands into tight fists, my nails digging into my palms.

    Her small smile vanished, and for a second I could have sworn I saw pity in her eyes. A flicker of anger rose in my veins, I didn’t want her pity—I didn’t want anyone’s pity. But that anger vanished as quickly as it came, because I had no right to be anger with her. I had no right to be even remotely angry with Aoifa, who was kind and gentle and carried a mother’s ethereal strength.

    “I feel so . . .” I started, but a tightness seized my throat. After a moment I managed to croak out “Lost”. And that was all it took for her to turn me around and bundle me into her arms. Aoifa was only slightly taller than me, so my forehead rested against her shoulder.

    She didn’t say anything, didn’t murmur any falsities such as ‘It will be alright’. She merely held me, one of her hands patting my hair, until I felt calmer and pulled away.

    “Any better?” she asked.

    I took a deep breath through my mouth and nodded when I released it. I still felt lost, of course I did, but I was calmer, not as hysterical.

    “We were worried about you, my dear,” she whispered and gathered my hair in her hands to drape it over one shoulder. “I was watching you carefully in the council chamber. For what it is worth, Ygraine, I am sorry.”

    “It’s not really worth anything,” I murmured.

    She nodded and wiped my eyes with the sleeve of her dress. “What are you thinking?”

    “That I have lost everything,” I admitted. “That Mordred will win after all.”

    “You cannot give up hope so easily.”

    I had already done so. After my father had died, I had given up hope. Hope wasn’t something lost princesses could have. “You heard what he said, that my brother will stand between him and I. Well, him and whoever goes up against him. I cannot kill my brother; I cannot have anyone kill him. I cannot bear to lose him also.”

    “And you won’t have to, Ygraine. We shall find a way to save him, to free him.”

    “I fear that will only happen if we killed Mordred, and we cannot do that.” I was left with only one choice, one I had thought of whilst consumed by my tears and sadness . . . “I want to go to Camelot.”

    A startles look crossed her face. “What? Ygraine—”

    She was cut off by another voice. “Ygraine, you can’t!” I glanced over Aoifa’s shoulders to see Lochru stood in the doorway of the room, with Cyrus behind him.

    I moved away from Aoifa to stand only a few feet away from him. “It’s my choice, Lochru.”

    There was pleading in his eyes. “Why? Why do this? We just got you back—I just got you back—and now you want to go back there? Why?”

    “You heard what Mordred said, no mortal swords can harm him. So when the time comes, when the battle comes, you shall all perish and he will walk over your bodies. Even you, my friend who does not fight, would be killed by him because it would hurt me. I can’t have that, I can’t have anymore of you die for me—and don’t try to deny it, I know that if you fight then you’d be fighting for me, not my Kingdom, because I am your friend. Don’t you see that your friendships with me put you all in danger? I cannot have any of you die or be enslaved for me!”

    “Ygraine,” he tried, but I raised my hand to silence him.

    “If I go down to Camelot I can try to bargain with my cousin. If I allow him to have me once more, he may not harm you.”

    “And there’s an equal chance he won’t,” Cyrus murmured and came forward to share the doorway with Lochru. “Your cousin kills because he enjoys it; he causes pain because he likes it. You go to him, and he will capture all of us and kill us slowly in front of you just to watch you break. He’ll kill me, Lochru, Aoifa, Gawain, Robert—anyone and everyone you care about and have come to care about—just to cause you pain upon pain. Or he’ll make you just like your brother, break you until you’re a mindless puppet for him to play with.”

    “I’m already broken!” I almost shouted. “I’m already broken; Mordred cannot break me any more so.”

    “He will find a way,” was all he said in way of a reply.

    “What will you do if he does not adhere to your bargaining?” Lochru asked.

    I raised my chin and stared at him. “I will find a way to release my brother, for he means more to me than my own safety. Or I find Clarent, I will steal it from Mordred just as he did with my father, and I will stab it through the bastard’s heart.”

    “You think it would be as easy as that? Stab Mordred with that sword, magik though it is, and that will be it?” he muttered and took a few steps forward into the room. “Your cousin is many things, power-crazed and a usurper yes, but he is also smart. Don’t you think he would have a contingency plan in case you found Clarent—or by some miracle Excalibur—and used it to kill him, a contingency that would cause you pain and kill the one person you cannot kill? For all we know Mordred may have tied your brother’s life to his own, so you kill Mordred and you also kill Duran.”

    I froze in my spot, my blood running cold. Only two magik swords existed, that much was true, but Mordred didn’t do things by halves and would have a plan like this in case a sword was found.

    I scrunched my eyes shut, ignoring the nauseous feeling of loss that had made itself apparent once more, and remembered to breathe. When I opened my eyes once more, they were all staring at me expectedly, as if they were waiting not for a scared princess to speak but instead a queen. So I stopped myself feeling scared, because I could be brave—I had to be brave.

    “We will find out whether my brother’s life is tied to Mordred. If it is, we will find a way to untie it. My responsibility is to find a way to save my brother. But until then, as a contingency, a sword born of magik must be found.”

    “What do you suppose we all do? Scout the lands in attempt to find one? Sneak spies into Camelot to find Clarent?”

    I shook my head. “There is no need to find Clarent, not when there is another one. You have already mentioned it, dear Lochru. It is lost, has been for ten years, but I have a feeling that I know where to find it. And I will find it, for it belonged to my father.”

    Cyrus’s eyes lit up with recognition. “Excalibur,” he breathed.

    I nodded. “It is time it finds its way back into the hand of a Pendragon.”

    For my brother’s sake, for everyone’s sake, I would find that sword even if it was the last thing I would do. I would find it out of love for my father, to make sure my father was always remembered.

    I vowed to myself silently, then, that I would find Excalibur.

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