“The realm grows darker by the day, my lady,” he offered, almost apologetic. “We must ensure you are kept safe.”
“From whom?” she asked, with a cautious wonder. She was naïve, not yet understanding the nature of the pall that had fallen over her kingdom.
“From the men who will seek your throne,” he answered. “In times like these, men will show their true natures. In the light, their tricks are plain, and easily brushed aside, but in darkness…” He paused, contemplating the thought. “In darkness, all hands hold swords.”
“Can we keep the men away?” she asked, equal parts anxious and curious.
“We can do our best,” he replied.
He saw her the next day.
“It is cold,” she complained.
“It will get colder,” he said, pity on his lips. “The land is dying.”
“Will it get better?” she asked.
“In time,” he said.
He came back a few days later, and she asked to see outside; see the land as it had become.
“The people need you safe,” was his response. “Your hiding place must be kept a secret. The risk of you being noticed while out is far too great.”
“The people need to see their princess,” she would counter, knowing that it was a simple excuse at best. “They would be comforted by my presence.”
“They are comforted by your safety, your Grace. They know your rule is strong as it comes through me – there is no doubt that you are there for them. It is important that when these challenging times are through, you are still there for them.”
She supposed that he was right.
He came to see her a week later.
“I’m hungry,” she complained.
“Many are hungry,” he responded. “Your people scrape food together desperately as their fields grow barren. We must use our stores sparingly – there is no telling how long this will last.”
She wrung her hands, for the sake of her people, and to take her mind off her aching stomach.
Terrible storms wracked her from her dreams, night after night. Soon, the days blurred together, skipped from noon to sunset with seemingly no pattern. Was it weeks, or years? She couldn’t know. He would talk to her, try to comfort her, but always the same platitudes, the same poor reports of her kingdom in disrepair, and it began to wear.
In her time alone, she would write stories in her head. Powerful people righting wrongs, stories of masks and disguises where nobody was who they seemed. Heroes and villains, dancing a dance so intricate that often they traded places and sometimes weren’t dancing together at all.
He would tell her his own stories, of course. Stories of fact, not of fantasy, of danger and sins that men do.
“What men?” she asked one day, in desperation and exhaustion.
“There are men that seek you, my lady,” he responded, carefully. “Warriors that have been searching for you since this darkness began. I have done my best to hide you, but the day grows ever closer, I fear, where one will find this fortress and steal you away.”
“When?” she asked, perhaps a little too quickly.
He paused. “We cannot know. Soon, perhaps.”
She heard a bustle outside the door, the weathered oak she now knew so well. The fortress seemed alive in a way it never had. The door swung open in a wide arc, revealing him behind it as it had so many times before.
“Do you trust me, my lady?” he asked. He seemed troubled, his cloak fastened tighter than usual, his brow more furrowed, his beard hiding less of his frown.
“Of course,” she lied.
“Then come,” he said, grasping her arm.
He pulled her through the hallways at a speed with which she struggled to keep pace. They climbed a great stone staircase, the clashing sound of steel far below them growing quieter as they ascended to the ramparts. A violent gale blew their cloaks into hellish, flapping shapes and an eerie whistling filled the air as she looked down onto a large courtyard, weathered and pale by the harsh moonlight.
The gateway to the yard burst open and a yell, almost tribal, pierced the air. A gleaming, bloody sword pierced the darkness, followed quickly by a man, blond hair sodden and tangled, draped in muddy green sackcloth as tough as his demeanour.
Sweat, blood and rain mixed as they ran down his face, cutting through the dirt as he looked up and locked eyes with her, eyes older than his face should hold. Through it all, he smiled.
She smiled back.