Only the crash of the ocean hurricane could deafen Isabella’s cries of agony.
She and the wind whipped in unison – Isabella side to side on the narrow, wooden cabin bed; the ship by each rocking wave. The rain pelted atop the deck. Lightning illuminated the state room. Penelope – the assigned nurse maid tasked with keeping Isabella alive – lit and re-lit the rapidly diminishing candles. Would the Princess survive?
Marick and the Elders awaited the Juniper along the banks of Mount Tempest. King Frances had sent word the Princess would be due to arrive on the fortnight. Marick – proud, strong – stood against the reeling storm; his face and beard weathering the brunt of the rain. The Elders behind him cowered behind their robes and hoods, sheltered below the low-hanging rocks along the reef.
In the distance, the Juniper broke the horizon amid the storm. Marick turned his face toward the Northern Moon, clouded behind a dangerous sky. He nodded. The hurricane sighed and began to retreat.
“I can see Mount Tempest,” Penelope whispered into the Princess’ ear, “We’re almost there.” She rose from the bedside, her staunch uniform now stained with the Royal’s rich blood. Penelope, a woman of only twenty, attempted unsuccessfully to resign her fear to confidence. She reached to the table, drew the cloth from the basin and pressed it gently to Isabella’s forehead. The Princess was deathly pale. Her brunette locks damp with sweat.
“Penelope!” bellowed from above, “We’re near Mount Tempest. The storm looks to be breaking. That girl had better be alive when we git there!”
Penelope, ghastly terrified of the Captain and his motley crew of would-be pirates, stroked back the Princess’ hair. It had been a full ten minutes since her last wailing cry for help. The bump of her womb frightened Penelope further. She’d never witnessed a birth before. Why had the Queen entrusted her tonight?
She laid a hand across Isabella’s swollen belly. She knew she had to check if the baby was going to deliver before they anchored. Slowly, she eased her hand inside the Princess. Isabella didn’t stir.
Penelope had once been invited to watch her father assist their cow deliver. She remembered the smell. Her father’s arm – up and up and up – until she couldn’t see it any longer. Then the calf, dropping to the ground. And the sound of that cow – the sound she could still hear in her ears.
But Princess Isabella no longer made sound.
Marick withdrew his staff from his cloak to aid his descent down Mount Tempest’s narrow corridor. The rock had been chiseled away by the Elders of his past; a pathway to the temple of Oledanick’s wise and elite. A crudely carved building of stone ascended the peak of Mount Tempest – a glowing beacon to all who sought refuge through the channels of Oledanick’s Loughten Sea.
His fellow Elders followed in close pursuit.
Marick’s task was simple by nature. Deliver the Princess of the bastard child that had befallen her. A consequence, King Frances had written. A consequence of her decision to break Royal law and besiege a commoner from the Village without consent.
“But I request of you, Elder Marick,” wrote Frances, “I request you preserve her life at all costs. Her punishment will be this birth.” He added, “Do away with the bastard. Its life threatens this very Kingdom and all the virtues of Oledanick. Send word to me when its light has been extinguished.”
Marick heard the words in his mind, like a chant. When its light has been extinguished.
The Elders arrived at the moat.
The Juniper sail bore the crest of King Frances. A broad falcon, wings stretched outward. A crown adorning its head. Eyes set still, angry.
The mast of the ship exposed weathered cracks from its battle with the Oledanick storm. Marick made note of its poor condition. He silently asked the ancestor Elders to ensure the Juniper returned its voyage back to the Kingdom before daylight. His plan depended on it.
The Juniper anchored and tethered her place at sea, the crew rapidly descending boats to the water below. One carried a ghost. Not a ghost, thought Marick, the Princess.
Even from his perch on the dock, Marick could see there was scarcely life in the Princess’ frail body. Wrapped in shrouds of cloth, Isabella was barely visible. A frightened nurse maid sat poised beside her. Her trembling eyes gave it away – even at a distance. The Princess was grasping to stay alive.
The crew tossed Marick the rope, the Elders behind him fastening it in place. He outstretched his arms and in them placed was Princess Isabella. Her tiny form crumpling to his touch, Marick wrapped her under his robe and began the challenging climb to the temple.
The Elders hoisted Penelope from the boat, an audible gasp caused by her blood-soaked dress. She had never seen the Elders in person before. Their worn and ugly faces, speckled with warts and crooked noses startled her. She pushed passed them to follow Marick through the moonlight. Tonight, she wasn’t permitted to be frightened. Tonight, she had to fight. For her and the Princess.
“How close is she to birth?” Marick called over his shoulder.
“My Lord, I could feel nothing but the smallest part of the child’s head,” Penelope returned between gasps of breath. How he was carrying Isabella and quickening his pace befuddled her. She scurried to keep up.
“How long has she been bleeding?”
“For more than the time we were on the ship, my Lord. Elders before me, I am unsure how she is still with child.”
“She may not be.”
The temple loomed in front of them moments later. A heavy, iron-gate gleaned under the Northern moonlight. “Penelope,” Marick instructed, “Unfasten the key from my belt.”
Quickly, she located the master gate key and unhinged the lock from the gate. Together, the pair pushed back the temple doors where they were greeted by several Elders waiting in circle around the High Framed Table. Penelope gasped.
The candlelight cast dancing shadows along the stone walls of the temple. Carvings and engraved markings lined the hallways. A vast, great ceiling, roughly painted and inscribed stared down at them. Cloaks of reds and greens ascended from pillars. Paintings of Oledanick Elders were fastened to the stone. Each pair of eyes following, following until they caught you looking back. Then you swore they turned away.
Marick placed the Princess on the table.
A group of Elders formed around Isabella. Penelope was pushed away, a glimpse here; a look there. Incense crept inside her nose and drew tears from her eyes. Still, there was no sound from Isabella.
Along the candle shadows, Penelope watched with clenched fists and teeth, listening to the Elders puncture Isabella’s delicate flesh with their sacred knives. She drowned the sound by concentrating on her own breaths. In, out. In. Out.
Marick said not a word, but glanced back only once to see the nurse trembling in fear; eyes wide, jaw clenched. Her knuckles as pale as the Northern Moon this eve.
When he returned his attention to the Elders, they had incised a wound large enough for him. With his blistered and worn hands, Marick pulled the baby from Isabella’s womb. No cry came from her lips. The Elders severed her from her mother.
Marick looked deeply at the child. Caked in her blood, with eyes as bold as the Loughten Sea, Marick breathed a low, silent breath into the child’s gaping mouth. A loud shriek filled the temple corridors.
With the sound of her daughter’s first cries, Princess Isabella shuddered. She slowly, delicately, opened her eyes long enough to see her cherub face. And now that she knew she had lived, it was though she was permitted to exhale her last breath. Drawing her head to the Northern Moon, she blinked a solitary tear. Isabella was dead.
Penelope, now resigned to a deep puddle on the floor, was shaken to her feet by the Elders. “You must feed the babe! You must feed the babe!” they urged her. Their words echoed in unison.
Bewildered, Penelope looked for meaning at Marick. “What do I do? What do they mean?” she shrieked through her tears.
Marick, having wiped clean the child, thrust her into her arms. “Place her at your breast,” he ordered, “She will need to eat before her journey.”
The Elders scurried to the High Frame Table, busily cleaning the blood, sweat and stain left behind by the Princess. Marick shut her lids, re-wrapped the shrouds and disappeared with her body.
Penelope, unfamiliar, unsure and unaware, put the child to her chest. Sobbing, she waited as she clawed her fists around her and found her milk she didn’t realize had been waiting for her. It hurt. But here she was – Princess Isabella’s child, nestled at her. They had lived. But she had died. Penelope had failed. She pushed back her infant hair and listened to her suckle. “How do we save you?” she whispered.
The Elders, too concerned about the desecration of the High Frame Table, did not stir when a figure stepped out from the shadows. Penelope recognized him immediately. “Easton!” she exclaimed.
The baby fussed, pulling away. “Penelope,” Easton said, “You are holding my daughter.”
She fumbled for her words. Easton reached for the baby, but she held firm. “Penelope,” he commanded, “Give me the child.”
Shaking her head relentlessly, she finally surrendered. How could this village boy be responsible for this? How had it come to be? Did the King know? What of the duel?
“It is time, Easton,” Marick boomed from behind them, “Isabella is at peace in the Loughten Sea. But you – you must go. There is no other time.”
“What do you mean, my Lord?” Penelope asked.
“Penelope, it was by King Frances’ order that this child be destroyed. Princess Isabella was to return home on the Juniper with you at sunrise. I will see to your safe arrival in the Kingdom, but I will not allow this child to perish. I will not extinguish her light,” Marick stated.
“Where will you go?” Penelope asked Easton, “Where can you be that the King will not find you? He has slaughtered a thousand men who have crossed his path. He will find you.”
“No,” Marick replied gently. “He is going elsewhere to raise this child far from the walls of Oledanick.”
“Penelope,” Easton pleaded, “You must not speak a word of this to King, or to our village.”
“Then I’m going with you.”
“No!” Easton shouted, causing the baby to fuss, “It’s far too dangerous.”
“You cannot care, feed or raise this child on your own!” Penelope cried. “Isabella was like a sister to me.”
“There is no time left,” Marick said. “We must go. Now.”
Having no other choice, Easton resigned. Marick, he, Penelope and the baby descended through the back chambers of the temple to Mount Tempest’s most southern valley.
There, at the ravine of the bank, was their crude, makeshift raft, ready to sail.
“You remember where I showed you?” Marick asked Easton.
“I do, my Lord.”
“Then, you must go.”
Easton placed the baby in Penelope’s arms, as he loaded up the baskets set out for him by Marick and the Elders.
“Do not get lost,” Marick said firmly, “The channel only opens when the Northern Moon is at its highest rise. When you arrive at the beach, you will know when you can pass through.” He kissed Penelope’s cheek and shook Easton’s hand. “Our ancient Elders will keep you safe.”
Marick used the brunt of his heavy foot to push the raft into the sea. As they floated out of sight, it was time to return to the temple. The war was nearly here.