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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6. 4

 

 

 

 

4

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“Ygraine!”

    I ran blindly, skirting past the flames and stumbling over the bodies of the fallen dead in an attempt to flee to safety. The ground, the trees, the bushes, they were all on fire. The forest was on fire. I dodged away from a burning branch just in time, for it fell and landed only a couple of feet away from me.

    “Duran!” I shouted, trying futilely to pick out my older brother from the mass of bodies swirling and fighting a good ten metres away from me, but they were all blackness and blurred shapes in the contrast of the orange embers. My burning eyes were unable to sort out enemy from ally—burning from both the hazy smoke and the sting of tears.

    I stood far from the scene before me now, looking down on to it from my place atop the steep re-entrant between two trees that had not yet caught fire. The forest burned away on each and every side of me, encircling the camp below.

    “Ygraine!” a familiar voice called back, familiar but not my brother’s. I spun and glanced skywards and rubbed at my eyes, trying to dislodge the blurriness caused by the smoke that was also, steadily, invading my lungs and causing me to let out retched coughs. A figure floated in front of me, holding out their arms before clasping their firm hands around both my upper arms. I screamed, and the figure shook me as they whispered my name.

    Slowly my vision cleared, and brown hair and blue eyes came into view.

    “Lochru,” I whispered. Not an enemy. An ally. A friend. I snatched my arms away from him—only to wrap them around him in the next second. When I pulled away next I stared up at him pleadingly before speaking. Panic layered my voice, but it was also hitched for I couldn’t breathe properly.  “Where is my brother?—where is Duran? Lochru, I have to find him. Where is he?”

    He looked at me squarely, determination in his eyes. “Ygraine, you have to leave. You have to run. Get out of here.”

    “Not without my brother!” I screamed, facing off the Druid boy I had known for four years of my life. He was my companion, my closest friend.

    “I do not know where he is,” he said, making as if to try to turn me towards the edge of the clearing, but I replaced my feet in a way so that I could not be budged. “Ygraine, do not be ignorant, you are unarmed. You need to run and get away from this melee. You must not let the enemy capture you.”

    “Pendragon’s do not run from battle.”

    “That may be true, but you are barely of fourteen years.”

    “I am old enough to fight. I can fight.”

    “I do not dispute that you can but you are unarmed,” he pointed out again, gesturing to me. For sure, I was—at some point I had dropped my dagger in the haze. A scream, a piercing shrill, tore through the blackness of the night sky. With it, I was suddenly jerked awake—suddenly I realised that people were dying, and there was nothing I could do to help them.

    “Lochru,” I whispered with a cough. Fear paralysed me, stiffened by bones and muscles. “Lochru, I’m scared.”

    He nodded as if he understood my emotions. “I know,” he whispered, letting go of my arms. “But you need to run. You are the Princess, you are more important than any of the rest of us, save for your brother, and therefore you need to—”

    His words were cut short by a sword that pierced straight through him from behind. I stood frozen, unable to release the scream building up in my throat, and all I could do was clamp my hands over my mouth. Blood gurgled out from the corner of his lips, spilling down his jaw-line and throat.

    The sword was drawn back from his body. I couldn’t see who the weapon belonged to, for the person was wearing a cloak in which the hood was brought up, obscuring the face in deep shadows, and before I could reach to lower the hood the figure turned away the way they had came without even seeming to notice my presence.

    Lochru’s bleeding form slumped forward. Though he was heavier than me, thanks solely to his muscles, I reached out subconsciously and managed to keep a hold of him without falling onto my back.

    “Lochru,” I whispered as I lowered him to the ground, cradling his head on my lap. His tunic was quickly beginning to soak red with his blood, so I tore off the left sleeve of my torn dress and wadded it against the wound in his abdomen, trying in vain to stop the bleeding. Within seconds the sleeve, that had been light green beforehand, had turned a deep and dark shade of red that coated my hand.

    “Y-Ygraine,” he whispered in between a cough muffled by the gurgle of blood.

    I threw the material somewhere, choosing to instead press my hands against the wound. “I’m here.”

    “You . . . have . . .” he started, staring up at me with dark blue eyes that had started to cloud over. “Go.”

    “No!”

    “L-Leave.”

    I took hold of his right hand and brought it to my lips, ignoring the blood that stained my hand. “I am not leaving you. Come on, Lochru, don’t even think of leaving me—do not close your eyes on me!”

    He coughed again and took a retched breath. His hand was starting to go cold in mine, and his eyes were starting to roll back to white. “Ygraine?”

    I leaned forward subconsciously, releasing his hand so that I could brush away the strands of his dark brown hair that had fallen in his eyes. “Yes?”

    “Thank . . . you . . . for being my . . . my friend. For allowing me . . . to know you.”

    “Don’t say that—don’t say it like it’s a goodbye.”

    “It is.”

    “No, it’s not! Lochru, please,” I pleaded with a voice laden heavy with the onslaught of tears. “Just hang on a little longer. Merlin will come back—he’ll come back, and he’ll save you.”

    “Face . . . the truth, Ygraine . . . I’m dying. I’ll be dead any second.”

    “I won’t let you die!”

    “Let me go, Ygraine.”

    My eyes were blurred with tears. “Please, Lochru.”

    Lochru slipped his eyes closed, but immediately snapped them back open as soon as I slapped him around the head. “I told you not to close your eyes!”

    “And I . . . told you to . . . let me . . . go!”

    “And I refused.”

    “Ygraine,” he breathed on a whisper before he carried on taking shallow breaths. “I . . . I lo—”

    But he never managed to finish his words, for in that moment he took a deep breath and his chest rose and fell—it didn’t rise again. His eyes were still open, staring up lifelessly at me. His lips, which were parted slightly due to the start of his words, were started to lose their colour—just as the sun-kissed pallor of his skin was beginning to pale.

    He was dead.

    “Lochru? Oh God, Lochru!”

    Through my tears I had also started to hyperventilate, so I brought one hand to my chest in a pitiful means of trying to calm my breathing. It did not work in the slightest. When I breathed through my nose the smell of blood filled my nostrils, so I took to breathing deep breaths through my mouth—this did not work, either.

    “How incredibly touching,” a voice nearby murmured. “Was he a love of yours, Ygraine?”

    I stared skywards to see an overly-familiar figure stood just a couple of feet away, flanked by four men on either side of him. Fire blazed behind them, causing the black of their cloaks to appear even more starling and dark.

    “I must say that I am impressed—it has taken four years to find you, little Pendragon girl,” the figure continued before throwing back his hood. Even if I hadn’t known who he was beforehand, there was no doubt now. His pale face with the deep-set onyx eyes, narrow nose and lips, his high cheekbones, the stubble marring his jaw-line—all framed by jet black hair.

    “Mordred.”

 

“Ygraine!”

    I was shot awake with a start by arms shaking me. My eyes snapped open, but they were blurry with sleep so I could not tell who the figure, crouched down in front of me, was. I would have screamed if it was not for a hand that quickly clamped over my mouth the second I parted my lips.

    “Sister.”

    It took a good few moments for my eyes to clear and focus, but as soon as they did I regretted wanting to scream. Dark brown hair came into view first, and the shadows across his face would never be enough for me to not recognise him. To not recognise my own brother. He released his hand from my mouth, instead choosing to cup my face with it and stroke the pad of his thumb across my cheek.

    “Duran,” I breathed. I was about to wrap my arms around him in the affectionate little sister way before something dawned on me—how was it that he was here? How could he be in my cell? My gaze diverted away from him to the door, just to find that said door was still closed. “Duran? Duran, how did you get in here?”

    He smiled a mischievous smile that I was all too accustomed to in my years of knowing him, and held up something in his free hand. After a second, with thanks to dim light from the fires and torches outside in the courtyard, I realised that was he was holding up in front of his face was a key—the exact key that swung on Agravain’s keychain for the dungeons (there was only one key needed for the cells, all doors were opened and locked with the same key, after all).

    I darted a hand out and snatched it easily from his fingers. The simple act reminded me of the days long gone, when we were much younger and carefree, when he would steal something of mine with that same mischievous smile—usually a flower I had just picked for our mother, or one of my straw dolls—and I would snatch the object straight back as soon as his attention lessened before running off.

    The memory was enough to bring back the sting of tears, how I missed and yearned for those days and those years. The days and years before the death and the heartbreak. The days and years before our family was torn about by our mother’s adultery and our father’s untimely death.

    “It’s replica made from a mould, but works just the same,” my brother said, breaking me from my reverie.

    “And where in the name of the Triple Goddess did you get it from?”

    He let out a short laugh. “Special thanks to a courtier who fealty still lies with the Pendragon’s.”

    “But we have been believed to be dead for almost six years.”

    “The courtier is Ser Tomas.”

    My eyes widened. “The third advisor to our Father, behind Merlin and then our Mother.”

    “And a member of the Council. Ser Tomas recognised who I was straight away; there was no way he could not.”

    “Why has he sided with Mordred?”

    Duran sighed and leant forward momentarily to kiss my forehead. “People do what they must. It was side or die. Tomas does not keep loyalty to Mordred, however—he wishes to see the False King off the Throne, and see a rightful heir placed back upon it. To see a Pendragon ruling Camelot once more.”

    I nodded, allowing Duran to pull me up on to my feet. We had grown to be the same height, my brother and I. “How did he become aware of you, then?”

    “You are aware that while Mordred requests audiences with you, he orders that I play manservant to him—under the supervision of his guards of course,” he said as he hooked an arm around my waist. “Ser Tomas caught sight of me in the hallways a week ago as the guards escorted me back to my cell. From there he came down to the cells, and now obviously I have a key to the cells, he dropped it through the small window.”

    “Oh.”

    “Now sister, I hate to rush you but we need to go—now.”

    “Where?”

    He looked down at me for a moment before he let me go and walked over to my door, staring intently out of the small barred window. “Out of Camelot. Ser Tomas is waiting for us in the trees with two horses. He sent word to Gawain that we are alive, and Gawain wants us escorted to Lothian straight away.”

    It all dawned on me then. “We’re escaping?”

    He gave me a sideways look and smiled. “Of course we are, little sister.”  

    “You’re serious?”

    “Aren’t I always?”

    I shook my head. “That is not what I meant,” I muttered, waddling over—for my legs were slightly numb with having been sat on them for I didn’t know how long, as well as the tightness of the material on my legs—to him. “How do you plan to escape? We’ll fail immediately; there are tens of guards outside the cells alone. Then you have the guards in the corridors, not to mention the ones in the courtyard. We don’t even have weapons.”

    “Oh ye of little faith,” he murmured with a small laugh. “Do you honestly believe I would have showed up unarmed?”

    “You don’t really have a choice—” I cut off as he reached down to his booted feet and drew out a familiar looking dagger from the side of his left boot.

    “I believe this belongs to you,” he said, holding it out before himself to me.

    I stared at the object incredulously before taking a hold of it, unsheathing the dagger from its ruby and gold encrusted scabbard—a gift from my Father when I had turned seven years of age. “I thought I had lost this in the blaze almost six years ago,” I breathed.

    “Seems Mordred rather liked it; it had been in the treasury until Ser Tomas found it when searching for suitable swords.”

    “Suitable swords?” I asked as I leant down and brought the dagger to the bottom of my dress to cut it a few inches shorter, and then proceeded to cut upwards from hem to knee on both the left and right side.

    “You look like a whore now,” Duran said as I wrapped and tied the loose material around my waist, sheathed my dagger once more, and slotted it through my improvised belt.

    “How would you know what a whore looks like?”

    “Mordred.”

    “I honestly do not want to know.”

    “Keep your head innocent, little sister,” he laughed and raised a hand to ruffle my hair into an even bigger knot than it already was. “And on the subject of suitable swords”—he reached around himself and unsheathed a sword that I had not realised from hanging from a belt around his waist until then—“this should do nicely.”

    “Plan on spearing many guards, dearest brother?”

    “Naturally.”

    “Why do you get a sword and I get a just a dagger?”

    “I’m the older sibling, and a man.”

    I rolled my eyes and punched him on the arm. “That is not a good enough reason and you know it!”

    “You match for any man.”

    I smiled slyly. “And don’t you ever forget that, Duran.”

    “Do you plan on killing me little sister? If we succeed in taking back the Kingdom?”

    “Your hopes are too premature, do not expect succession so early,” I said. “But do not worry, brother, I have no care for the Throne.”

    “You have no wish to be Ygraine Pendragon, Queen of Camelot?”

    “Not particularly.”

    He nodded, seemingly half to himself. “Fair enough.”

    I gave him a sisterly smile.

    “Now, I don’t mean to be rude but shush! We have about five minutes before the guards wake up from the sleeping draft Ser Tomas slipped in their drinks.”

    “They’re knocked out?”

    “Asleep, yes.” Laying both hands flat on the heavy door, he slowly pushed it open to enough of a width of a gap for both of us to fit through. He slipped through, holding out his sword in front of him. “Come on,” he whispered back to me, holding out his free hand. “Or do you wish to stay captured for the remainder of your life?”

    “Oh yes, I would love to. What do you think?”

    “Let’s be on our way then.”

    I took hold of his hand, which felt calloused and warm in mine, but reassuring nonetheless. I felt safe when holding my brother’s hand, considering that I hadn’t done so for six years, and before then I had always gripped hold of his hand when I had felt scared. His hold also felt comforting, and I needed that.

    As soon as he had locked the door to my cell up, in order to “make it less conspicuous” as Duran had said, we set off down the corridor.

    “What were you dreaming about when I came into your cell?” he asked in a whisper. Apparently, even though the guard’s were asleep, our voices had to be kept down.

    “What do you mean?”    

    He gave me an impassive sideways glance. “Don’t,” he said, “play dumb, little sister. It doesn’t become you, and I can see straight through the facade, I know you far too well to be fooled.”

    “Duran, I—”

    “You were shaking whilst you slept. I’ve seen it before,” he continued, cutting me off. He let go of my hand momentarily and reached across me to pull a torch out of its sconce on the wall, handing it to me before taking back my other hand in his. “I saw it for two years straight, every time you fell asleep. I remember those two years so well, the two years after our Father died and you suffered a relentless torrent of nightmares—you kept dreaming of him dying, over and over again. You used to be frightened so much that you would not shut your eyes, and I was never able to do anymore than hold your hand and coax you to sleep after who knows how long of promising you that I was right beside you.”

    “And you stayed with me,” I said, remembering those days and nights from long ago, distant memories of a past of events I would sometimes much rather forget.

    “Naturally,” he murmured, glancing behind himself for half a second. “After a while I realised that you shake when you’re having nightmares of death, and the shakes increase until you scream yourself awake. Eventually I learnt to wake you before the screams. Who were you having a nightmare about, Ygraine?”

    I sighed and swallowed down the lump that had built up in my throat. “Lochru.”

    He lifted his chin slightly in an upwards nod of understanding. “Oh. But Ygraine, Lochru isn’t—never mind.”

    “What?”

    “It doesn’t matter, honestly.”

    I looked at him squarely for a number of seconds, but when his serene face didn’t give anything away I allowed the subject to be dropped. “Fine.”

    He sighed, in what sounded like relief, and then lent across to kiss my temple. “I wish I could carry on protecting you from the harshness of the world—”

    “You cannot protect me from something I have already been exposed to for too long,” I whispered, holding the torch up higher in front of me. “You cannot be my armour, for it has already chipped and broken.”

    “I know that. I said I wish I could carry on protecting you, not that I’m going to.”

    I nodded and turned my head to look at him, squeezing his hand reassuringly. “Duran, you know that I love you, don’t you?”

    “Of course I do. I love you too.”

    “Then it’s Pendragon’s together, all the way.”

    He looked at me and laughed.

    “What?”

    “Do you realise how incredibly mawkish that sounded? Not to mention corny.”

    I sighed and raised my elbow to jab him in the ribs. “Just agree with me.”

    He rolled his eyes, but nodded anyway. “Pendragon’s together.”

    “An unbeatable force.”

   He rolled his head sideways as if he were dizzy before shaking it, dark brown strands of hair falling in front of his eyes. But then he stared at me—intensely stared—and parted his lips, his breath audibly hitching.

    “Now what?”

    He shook his head again, immediately coming back to his senses. “Sorry,” he said, “I’d just forgotten how much you have grown to look the exact clone of our Mother until now. The low light cast shadows across your face and smeared your features, but now I realise you honestly do look like Guinevere Pendragon.”

    “Alas,” I muttered, quickly glancing away from him. “Too many features of me are the same as that traitor’s.”

    “Except your eyes, you inherited our Father’s eyes. It’s funny to say that though we are siblings, we honestly look nothing alike.”

    This much was true, though our height was the same indeed that was where our similarities ended. Whereas my brother had dark brown hair, I had inherited the ginger that was the same as our Mother’s. Whereas he had our Mother’s eyes—hazel brown—I had our Father’s eyes—green, the colour of peridot. I had inherited our Mother’s soft rounded face, whereas Duran was all sharp-jaw and angular cheekbones and hard lines—just like our Father had been.

    “One feature of our Father’s, a dozen features of our Mother’s,” I muttered with a huff.

    “Except I do believe that Mother’s hair was shorter, not quite to the waistline like yours is.”

    “Well, save for that there is hardly any difference. I have not been fortunate.”

    “Do you still not forgive her?” he asked, letting go of my hand to tuck a stand of my hair behind my ear.

    “Do you? She betrayed Father.”

    “Of course I do not forgive her,” he said, looking straight ahead, but I could tell the anger from the set of his jaw. “But that is me. Part of me had expected more from you, you were always the forgiving sort.”

    “How could I forgive her?” I hissed. “She committed adultery. She shattered our Father’s heart as easily as if it were just an old mirror she had tossed aside for its surface had tarnished. She may not have been forthright cause of our Father’s death, but she did have a hand in it. She broke our Father, and because of it he fell into melancholy, and was not in the right frame of mind when he faced that bastard up there who dares to wear his crown. Guinevere is a traitor who bears the Pendragon name. No, she is a traitor who, more than likely, bears the Du Lac name.”

    “Actually,” he said calmly, “last I heard she had sought refuge at a convent, and is now a Sister.”

    I almost burst out with laughter. “The audacity. She now calls herself a Sister, yet she is the unholy of unholy—a traitor and a whore,” I growled as we turned the corner. “I despise and detest her, Duran.”

    “More than you do Mordred?”

    “Oh, I could never despise anyone as much as I do the False King.”

    He nodded, sheathing his sword once more. “Whoever called you the little Pendragon girl with the gentle heart—they are completely wrong—”

    “I am neither little nor gentle. I will have a hand in Mordred’s death.”

    “What changed you, sister?”

    “Life,” I answered simply. “Loss. Death. Pain. Grief. Sorrow. Hatred. Fury. Melancholy. I shall not carry on the list.”

    Duran looked as if he were about to say something else on the matter, when the heavy sound of a dozen stamping footfalls and shouting echoed down the corridor. I spun around with a start, the torch falling out of my hand to crash onto the floor—the flames extinguished almost immediately.

    “Duran, was that—”

    “The guards?” he finished my question. “Yes, I rather believe it was!”

    “You said they were asleep!”

    He looked at me as he unsheathed his sword. His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. “I guess we outstayed the five minutes.”

    “You guess?” I half-shouted, since it didn’t matter for volume of voices now. “We’ll be imprisoned once again—if not killed!”

    “No, Ygraine, we won’t.”

    “How did you come to that?”

    “Don’t you trust me?”

    I shrugged. “I suppose I have to.”

   He smiled from one corner of his mouth and then clasped a hold of my shoulder with his free hand. “Then you take this,” he said, releasing my shoulder to take something out of boot. Another key, larger than the first. “There is a metal gate just a little further up ahead, use this to unlock it. The gate is atop a flight of stairs at the end of the corridor, and leads straight out into the courtyard. Once you reach the courtyard, just keep running to freedom.”

    “Where will Ser Tomas be?”

    “Across the river.”

    “That’s the other side of the castle, I’ll never make it!”

    Duran let out a huff and pressed the key into my hand. “Not if you go by way of the barbican, the drawbridge, and the hill—”

    “Oh, yes. To then be trapped in a place full of arrow slits and murder holes—genius plan you have there, brother.”

    “The portcullis is up, just run straight through it.”

    “And how do you expect me to get past the guards?”

    “You have your dagger. You know how to fight. If you can do nothing more, just run. Run until your legs feel as if they are going to pass out. And you’re going to have to swim.”

    “You’re not coming too?”

    “I will if I can, but my main task in life has always been to keep you safe—”

    Panic rose in my chest as the sounds of the guards drew ever closer. “If you believe your job is to protect me, you are better off next to me—just as I am safer next to you.”

    He shook his head. “A head start is what I will give you—”

    He was cut off by the shouts of guards, who had now flooded in to occupy the corridor behind my brother. Duran spun around; sword poised in front of him, and pushed me further down the corridor without looking back at me. “Now go!”

    “Duran . . .”

    “Just run!”

    I granted him one last look as he ran head-on into the wave of men, hatching the first down swiftly with the skill of a Knight who had been fighting for all of their life, then turned and ran down the corridor as fast as I could. I could hear the shouts behind me, but didn’t turn to look back for even a second.

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