Read the beginning of this Work in Progress!
“The pearl is the queen of gems, and the gem of queens.” ~ Grace Kelly
Five kingdoms surrounded the massive forest, which paralleled the mountain chain dividing the upper realms from the lower ones. The three kingdoms of the lower lands bordered the South Sea, while those to the north were rich with precious metals and gemstone deposits.
The main trading route that connected these two realms ran along the east side of the forest, then through the one and only mountain pass that could be used year-round, before heading south towards the sea. To take another route would have added weeks, if not months, to the trip.
Since this made the road a likely target for bandits, it was heavily patrolled by royal guards from all five kingdoms. However, along the north side of the forest, there was little need for such patrols. This was one of many routes taken from one kingdom to another. It is here that our story begins…
Pearl looked up from the book she was reading. “How much longer until we’re back in our own kingdom?”
Mrs. Harrison smiled. “Another hour I’d guess.” The woman looked over at her husband. “It will be nice to be home.”
“It will indeed,” Mr. Harrison agreed. He glanced out the window of the carriage. “Looks like the guards are slowing down.”
“So are we,” Pearl observed. “I wonder if one of the horses is having a problem?”
“I’m sure the horses are just fine,” Mr. Harrison replied. As they stopped, he opened the carriage door. “I’ll be right back.”
Mrs. Harrison nodded, then looked over at Pearl. “This will give you time to finish your book, Princess Pearl.”
“You don’t have to call me Princess Pearl,” she replied. “Pearl is just fine. You’ve known me my entire life.”
“And your mother before you,” Mrs. Harrison said. “Such a beautiful queen she was too.” Her eyes clouded. “I still miss them.”
“As do I,” Pearl agreed. “He was such a wonderful king. And she was so smart and strong…beautiful and kind. I don’t know that I’ll ever be as good a ruler as they were.”
“Don’t say anything like that again, Your Majesty.” Mrs. Harrison looked stern, then smiled. “At least, not in front of anyone but me.”
Pearl smiled back, then turned to the window. “I wonder what’s taking so long.”
Mrs. Harrison pulled the curtain back and gasped. “Run, Pearl!” She quickly opened the door on the other side of the carriage and practically pushed the princess out. “Run to the forest and don’t look back!”
Pearl did as she was told. She jumped out and ran as fast as she could towards the trees.
“We made it,” Pearl whispered, glancing behind her as she reached the trees. “Don’t worry, we’ll send for help. Whatever these bandits want, my uncle will take care of it….”
She stopped talking as she realized Mrs. Harrison was not with her. Hiding behind a large fir tree, she cautiously looked back at the carriage. As it rolled forward, she saw the figures lying on the ground. They weren’t moving.
“You idiot!” a man yelled. “There was no need to do that.”
“They would never have gone along with it,” the man replied, and Pearl recognized his voice. He was one of her guards.
“Well, how are you going to explain this?” the other man demanded. “He said he only wanted you to take care of the princess. And to make it look like an accident.”
Pearl shrank against the tree and closed her eyes. Everything started to spin, and she willed herself to breathe. “I can do this,” she whispered. “I have to do this.”
“Take the bodies out by the road,” the first man instructed. “And for the love of everything holy, find that girl!”
The guards started moving towards the woods, so Pearl ran. Wiping her eyes, she told herself she would mourn her friends later. Right now, she needed to focus on getting away. Her uncle would punish whoever was responsible for this. Why would anyone want to kill her? She was no threat. If anything, she was almost old enough to wed and an alliance would be an asset to any of the other kingdoms.
She heard the men yelling to each other as they moved through the forest. “She’s over here!” one shouted. “Never mind, it’s only a deer moving in the brush.”
“Find her!” another shouted back. “She can’t make it back to the castle. The instructions were very clear.”
She heard the water before she saw it. She’d never been in this forest, but she recognized the sound. They had a small waterfall in the wooded area behind the castle. She slipped off her cape and threw it into the water, hoping she wouldn’t regret that later. The nights were cold this far north.
She carefully walked along the rocks and back into the trees. With any luck, they would think she slipped and fell into the water. She ducked down and waited as the men got closer.
“She’s not here,” a man said. “She must have fallen in the water.”
“Lord Jarrod will not be happy,” another voice replied. “He will want proof that we accomplished our task.”
Pearl put a hand over her mouth to stop the sob. Her uncle was behind this? But why?
“Get the cape,” the man said. She recognized him as the one yelling at the guard earlier.
“What do we do now?” a man asked.
Pearl heard a groan and then a splash.
“You don’t do anything,” the man replied. “I can’t abide failure.”
Pearl stayed where she was for a long time, then cautiously went back towards the carriage. What she saw shocked her. All the guards were dead. Every one of them. Those who had been loyal to her as well as the traitors.
She slowly walked over to the carriage and glanced around, then bent down to brush her hand against Mildred’s cheek. She would never have allowed the princess to call her by her first name, but that’s how Pearl would always remember her.
The man responsible for all this was gone, and he’d taken the horses with him. Or he’d let them go. Either way, she had no way to travel but to walk.
She took a breath and spun around. There was no way back. She had to move forward. The only two people she could have trusted were lying dead by that carriage. She wiped her eyes and walked into the forest.
The shadows were growing long as Pearl walked through the trees. She’d found a path and managed to stay close to the water, but it was getting dark. Soon, she’d have to find somewhere to spend the night.
She’d hoped the river might take her to a small village or at least a cottage. She glanced around, worried that if she left the water she would get truly lost in this huge forest.
“I have to find someplace to sleep,” she said out loud, then smiled. She had a habit of talking to herself when she focused on a problem. At least, no one would hear her this time. She stopped smiling as she imagined herself safe in her own bed at home. Home. Would she ever see it again?
“It’s your castle,” she reminded herself. “Not your uncle’s.”
“I could not agree more,” a woman’s voice said.
Pearl spun around, but no one was there. “I must have imagined it,” she whispered.
“I hardly think so,” the voice replied. “If you look a little more carefully, I am sure you will agree.”
Pearl moved closer to the large ash on her right. She noticed three piles of stones placed in a semi-circle around the tree.
“There are two more on the other side,” the voice said. “Walk around and see for yourself.”
“I believe you,” Pearl replied, moving closer to the tree. She looked closely at the bark, then gasped as it seemed to pull away from the tree.
Pearl watched as the bark slowly changed into a long, brown dress. Then the woman appeared. She had dark hair and eyes with pale skin.
“I am Melia.” The woman took a step closer and Pearl forced herself not to move away.
“I am Pearl, Princess of the…” she stopped as she considered the rest of the sentence.
“Princess of the Five Kingdoms, Heir to the Astorial Throne, and Daughter of Royce the Great and Brianna of Thorin.” Melia smiled. “Did I forget anything?”
Pearl shook her head.
“It is important to know where we belong in the world,” Melia continued, “but you do not belong here.”
Pearl wiped an eye. “I’m sorry, but I have no where else to go.”
“I am aware of that,” Melia replied, glancing past Pearl. “I was told you were coming. I am a Dryad and look after this part of the forest.”
“A Dryad?” Pearl repeated. “Do you mean a tree nymph?”
“Not exactly.” Melia smiled. “However, if that makes it easier for you, I am content with that term.”
Pearl wondered if she’d fallen asleep from exhaustion and was now dreaming. She’d read about tree nymphs, but never imagined they might actually exist.
Melia took her hand. Pearl expected it to be rough like bark, but it was incredibly smooth and warm to the touch. “Even though you do not belong here, I am happy to help you.” She smiled. “And perhaps, you could help me.”
Pearl had read enough stories to know one didn’t enter into an agreement with a magical being lightly. “What do you mean?”
Melia looked around at the other trees. “I cannot leave the forest, but you can.” She let go of Pearl’s hand. “We will discuss that later. For now, you need food and warmth.”
“Is there a village nearby?” Peal asked, hopefully.
“No,” Melia replied. “However, there is a group of miners staying in a cottage nearby.” She looked at Pearl more closely. “Take off your jewels and hide them under that pile of stones to your right. No one will bother them there.”
“As you wish,” Pearl replied. “I am happy to pay for your help.”
“Silly girl, I do not need your jewels,” Melia said rather sharply, then smiled. “I forget you are not used to our ways. You must blend in with the others, or you will be at risk.”
“A fair point,” Pearl agreed, slipping off her rings and other jewels, then quickly putting them under the stones.
“And your dress will surely give you away,” Melia added. “Hide it under those leaves by the jewels.”
Pearl slipped off her dress and did as she was told. Glancing down at her long chemise, she realized it was too clean. Grabbing some dirt, she rubbed it along the bottom. “What do you think?”
“You will need a story about what happened to your dress,” Melia replied. “Tell them you were running from wolves…”
“Wolves?” Pearl repeated, eyes wide as she glanced around.
“Yes, but they will not bother you tonight.” Melia shook her head slightly. “Pearl, you must pay attention. You need to be convincing if you want to stay with them.” She hesitated. “And we must come up with something besides Pearl. That is not a common name in our land.”
“My mother named me for her aunt,” Pearl replied. “It is far more common in the Southern Kingdoms.”
“Pearl will be fine,” Melia said. “You will tell them you are Ulster’s granddaughter, come down to visit. I know Ulster will be away for several months. He left unexpectedly for one of the Southern Kingdoms and will not return for some time.”
Pearl nodded. “I am Ulster’s granddaughter. Is there anything else?”
Melia looked at her for a long moment. “Give me your hand again.”
Pearl held it out and Melia took it and closed her eyes. “You have a bit of wood magic, which is to be expected in these parts…but I also sense a very strong lineage of water magic.” She opened her eyes. “This could be of great use to you.”
“How?” Pearl asked.
“We will talk about that later,” Melia replied, and Pearl heard a howl from far away. “Take this,” Melia continued, picking up a small stone and placing it in Pearl’s hand. “It will help you focus your energy and make your story more convincing.”
Pearl looked down at the stone, then closed her hand. “Thank you.”
“Come back tomorrow, and we will finish our discussion,” Melia said, pointing to the path. “Take this around the next two bends and you will see the lights of the cottage through the trees. And remember, you were running from wolves.”
As Pearl started down the path, she heard the howling again, but this time much closer. She quickly glanced behind her, then ran as fast as she could towards the lights of the cottage.
Pearl was almost out of breath as she knocked on the door. She didn’t know if the wolves were behind her or not, and she didn’t want to find out. She knocked again, but this time even harder.
“Who is it?” a man demanded, swinging the door open.
“My name is Pearl. I’m Ulster’s granddaughter. Is he here?” She waited for the man to take a step back, so she could enter.
“Granddaughter?” the man repeated. “I don’t remember Ulster saying anything about a granddaughter.”
“Step aside and let the lass in,” another man said. He took one look at Pearl and grabbed a cloak off a hook by the door. “You must be chilled to the bone.”
Pearl accepted the cloak and quickly wrapped it around her. “Thank you.”
“Come, sit by the fire,” the second man offered. “I’m Callum and the rude one over there is Daniel.”
Pearl smiled slightly. “I appreciate your hospitality.” She glanced around the cottage. “Is my grandfather here?”
“Ulster left a few days ago,” a third man said, walking in from the other room. He looked younger than the other two. “You could use some tea.”
“That would be very nice,” Pearl replied.
“I’m Ross,” the man said. He gave her a quick smile, then went back into the kitchen.
“Get her something to eat,” Callum added. “There’s stew left.”
“Might as well bring some bread with it,” Daniel said. “What happened to your…well, well the rest of your clothes?”
“There was some trouble on the road,” Pearl replied. “One of the horses came up lame.” She took a sip of the tea Ross set in front of her. “I didn’t have enough money for a room, and the men said the cottage was only a short walk through the forest.”
“More than a short walk,” Ross said.
“Yes, it was,” Pearl agreed. “And then I heard the wolves howling and started running down the path, but my dress got caught in some branches. I decided to leave the dress and make a run for the cottage.”
“Probably for the best,” Callum replied. “We’ll help you find it and the rest of your luggage tomorrow. Eat your food, then you can sleep by the fire.”
“Thank you,” Pearl said, taking a bite of stew. “This is good.”
“Surprised?” Daniel asked.
“Not at all.” Pearl smiled. “Just very grateful.”
When she’d finished eating, Pearl stretched out on the blanket by the fire. It was the warmest place in the cottage, and she was very tired.
“Get some rest,” Callum said. “If you need anything, we’ll be upstairs.”
Pearl nodded and tried to cover a yawn. “Thank you.”
“And don’t worry,” Callum added. “Your Ulster’s granddaughter, which makes you family to us as well.” He smiled slightly. “Get some sleep, Lass. No one will bother you tonight.”
Pearl wrapped the blanket around herself more tightly and closed her eyes.
The next morning, she woke up with a start. It took Pearl a moment to remember where she was and what had happened. She’d been using the cloak they’d given her last night as a pillow. Pulling it around her chemise, she quickly stood up and walked past the table into the small kitchen.
“Can I help you with anything?” she asked Ross. He seemed to be responsible for the cooking, and she had to admit she didn’t have many skills in that area.
“I’d appreciate you filling this bucket with water,” Ross replied. “The well is just out that door, but you might want to get dressed first.
She looked over at the clothes folded on the chair. She’d walked right past them a moment ago. “Are those for me?”
“At least, until you find your dress.” Ross couldn’t help the smile. “It might be best to wear my tunic and leggings for now. It’s a good thing you kept your boots.”
Pearl glanced down; thankful she’d chosen practicality over fashion for her trip home. “I got these from my family before I left.”
Ross nodded. “Take the clothes over by the fire, and I’ll stay here while you dress. Callum and Daniel are out chopping more wood, so you won’t be bothered.”
Pearl realized they’d left the fire going all night for her. “I’ll be just a moment,” she promised, “then I’ll get the water for you.”
As she walked over to the well, she wrapped the cloak around her. The breeze was chilly this early in the morning. The area around the well was beaten down to bare dirt, so she set the bucket down and started pulling on the rope.
“You’re not Ross,” a voice behind her said.
Pearl spun around to see two men standing there. “I’m Ulster’s granddaughter,” she explained.
“You have an interesting choice of wardrobe,” the man on the left replied. “I took you for a boy.”
“Leave the lass alone,” Callum said, walking up with an armload of wood. “Your timing is good. We’re just about to eat.”
“I’m Walter,” the man on the right said, bowing slightly. “This is my brother, Oliver.”
“I can introduce myself,” Oliver replied. “Ulster’s granddaughter,” he added, looking at Callum. “I didn’t know he had one.”
“Neither did we,” Callum admitted, “but I told the lass she could stay until he gets back.”
“How soon will that be?” Walter asked, smiling at Pearl.
Callum raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t you take the firewood inside? Seeing as you seem to have so much energy.”
Walter took the wood and walked over to the side door. “Ross, what’s for breakfast?”
“I’ll get the water.” Pearl said, pulling on the rope again.
“Never mind that,” Callum replied. “You go help the others with breakfast. I need to have a private word with Oliver.”
Pearl nodded and went back to the cottage, wondering how she would ever find a dress in these woods. All she’d met were men! While she had never worn a tunic and leggings before, they were surprisingly comfortable. She’d almost regret going back to the dress.
As Pearl walked into the kitchen, Oliver was shaking his head. “I haven’t heard anything.”
Ross turned to her. “I don’t know how much your grandfather told you, but we’re having a bit of a problem with the king.”
“The king?” Pearl repeated. “No, he didn’t.”
“The king wants us to do all the hard work but not pay us for our trouble,” Oliver said, putting the wood down by the stove. “It’s not what we were promised.”
“No, it’s not,” Ross agreed. Looking at Pearl, he smiled. “Nothing for you to worry about. Since Ulster is gone, do you plan to return home?” He glanced over at Oliver. “You think the old man could have sent a letter or something.”
“He probably did,” Pearl said. “I really don’t have anywhere else to go…and I spent most of my money getting here. Do you know if they are hiring at the nearest village?”
“That depends,” Oliver replied. “What can you do?”
Pearl raised an eyebrow. “I would imagine it’s not that difficult to serve ale or bring out a plate of stew.”
“So, you’ve not done any of that work then?” Oliver asked, winking at Ross. “Maybe we should see how well you do. Why don’t you serve us our breakfast this morning?”
“All right, I will.” Pearl picked up the mugs and walked through the doorway, setting them on the table. “Where’s the silverware?”
“The what?” Ross couldn’t help a laugh. “You mean the forks? There’s no silver here.”
“Of course,” Pearl said, reminding herself to be more careful. “That’s what everyone calls it at home.”
“Everyone but Ulster…” Ross began as Walter and Callum walked into the room.
“We need to talk,” Callum announced. “Oliver has some disturbing news and it may impact our situation.”
“There’s been a kidnapping.” Oliver shook his head. “The young princess from the next kingdom was on her way home when bandits attacked. There’s no sign of her or the horses, but all the guards and her companions were killed.”
“This means there will be more guards searching these woods,” Callum said. “We need to be careful with our comings and goings. If the king finds out where we are, there will be trouble.”
Pearl wondered what exactly was going on. Callum met her look and nodded slightly. “Being Ulster’s granddaughter, I guess you have a right to know. He went to the Southern Kingdoms to find more men. We’re on strike and the king isn’t too happy about it.”
“Well, we’re not too happy about not getting what was promised,” Walter replied.
“Which is why we’re staying here,” Callum continued. “We walked out, and the other men threatened to quit as well. That didn’t sit well with the man in charge.”
“Aye, Lord Parker was not amused,” Ross agreed. “Put our names up for arrest and now we’re hiding from the Sheriff.”
“And my grandfather was behind this?” Pearl asked.
“Aye, Pearl…you know how he is.” Ross smiled. “Got right up in Parker’s face he did. Told him no man works for a pittance.”
Pearl smiled. “I can imagine. So, where does that leave us?”
“Well, you can go to the village,” Oliver replied. “There’s no warrant out for your arrest.”
“And when they ask me where I’m from?” Pearl asked. “Should I tell them I’m here to visit my grandfather? The one who started the strike.”
Oliver glanced at Callum, who shrugged. “What do you suggest?”
“You have a missing princess, several murders, guards searching the woods, and you’re wanted criminals.” Pearl held Callum’s gaze. “I think it’s time you make the most of this chaos.”
“And how do we do that?” Callum asked.
“By taking back what’s yours,” Pearl said, thinking of her own kingdom.
“What do you have in mind?” Walter asked with a slow smile.
“We get the money you were promised,” Pearl replied. “And we start with this Lord Parker.”
Callum shook his head. “I don’t think you know how difficult that would be, but you’re right about one thing. We can take advantage of this chaos.”
“It would give us time to meet with the men. Convince them to stop work in the mines once and for all,” Oliver said.
“I think Pearl has the right idea.” Walter smiled. “I’d like to give Parker a taste of his own medicine.”
“So, would I,” Ross agreed.
They all turned as the door opened and Daniel walked in. “This business with the missing princess is going to be trouble.” He looked at Pearl. “I don’t suppose you noticed anything on the road?”
“Not a thing,” Pearl replied, “but our attention was focused on the horse. When we realized we wouldn’t be traveling any further, I made my way here.”
“And ran into those wolves.” Callum held her gaze for a moment, then looked at her outfit. “Maybe you should go find your dress.”
Pearl knew she’d been dismissed. She wasn’t used to that but realized no one was going to treat her like a princess here. As she turned towards the door, Callum added, “Take the cloak. The wind hasn’t let up.”
She nodded as she picked up the cloak and walked out the door.
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