Little Cherine Book 10 - BPost022
Why give weapons or gifts to those who enter and why no restrictions on who is allowed to enter? Hadn’t they taken into consideration we might manage to come here? Was that why players have to declare whether they are entering to save the princess or not? Why would any Talent turn her imprisonment into a game?
If you wish to read from an earlier book, from Book 01 to Book 08, use this link button to open the LC Book Index:
“This can’t have been created by Cherine and I’m certain she must be the princess Leila. What do you all think, the one who imposed this game world, is he or she still here?”
“It sounds to me like A.W is an amateur Dragons and Dungeons player. I didn’t know they still exist.”
“He or she could be elderly Samuel.”
“Akiar, I don’t see any provision for aliens. I think we’ll have to claim you are an ogre. Christós, you are obviously a sorcerer. Samantha, which do you choose to be?” The others heard him in all innocence, only Robbie and Samuel grinning.
I pretended to be excited. “You won’t mind me being a woman of easy virtue?” They all laughed at Robbie’s reaction.
“Well, I guess you want to be the prince. I’m not much of a warrior and I doubt I’d be any good as a fairy. I’ll be an elf.”
Robbie pretended to mop his brow in relief. “Phew, when you started off by saying I wanted to be a prince, I thought you were preparing me for your offer to be a princess.”
“Christo, what about Isaac?”
“Isaac, any preferences? If you like, I’d suggest a priest.” He nodded, not very interested.
We chose our weapons, potions and spells and returned to the man at the desk. They pushed me forward to start first.
“Virginal damsel. A dagger only since you don’t have any other weapons suitable for a girl.”
“Take a shield. We have some light ones and it could prove to be useful.” He stared at me, reached out and touched my hand. I was shocked to feel his mind probing my body. “Uhm, for as long as you remain a virginal damsel, your shield will be charmed.”
“Thank you. Would you mind if I change my mind? I’d rather be a healer. Do healers carry weapons?”
“I’ll take your charmed shield, a healing potion and one vanishing potion.” He scribbled on a paper and gave it to me. “Hand it to the gatekeeper once you are through the first gate.” He smiled. “You’re going to be quite a sensation, there are no other children in there. Your purpose?”
“To rescue the princess.”
“You may pass.”
The gatekeeper ordered a soldier to bring the shield and entered a small room full of vials and brought me my potions. He waved me on, but I refused to pass through the second gate until the rest had joined me. While I waited I wondered whether I’d been cheated, the shield was so light I could not believe it was made of anything capable of withstanding a blow by a toddler, never mind a warrior.
After me, they told Isaac to enter. I grinned as I listened.
“What faith - good gods or evil?”
“Rabbi.” He was evidently taken back for he stared at Isaac for a while.
“No.” Ooh, I could have cried! Our chance to have a few extra blown!
“Take a flute Isaac.” He shrugged okay, so it was written down.
“A knife also, we might need you to carve us a few little animals to sell for food.” That was also entered.
“For the princess or against?”
“That does not sound too definitive. I guess you’re smarter than I thought, you’re planning to bid for a bribe to make you rich? Okay, for the princess. Enter rabbi.”
Akiar stepped up. “And what are you?”
“Never seen one like you before.”
Robbie smiled, “These ogres are shy, that’s why.”
“A shy ogre! For or against?”
“For the lady.”
He laughed. “We know she’s a princess, as for lady…that is not known.”
Robbie laughed and clapped Akiar on the shoulder just as he was about to react. “I guess he’s got you there.” Akiar looked at him sourly, realised and tried a smile.
“Sword, battle axe and longbow.”
“Hmm, I guess you don’t need any armour. I guess that gives you an advantage. Only two weapons for you.”
“Sword and longbow.”
He passed through the first gate and I carefully hugged him and smiled up at him. Fiercely he whispered, “She is a princess and a lady!”
“Doesn’t this remind you of Candy’s magical world?”
“No, you nicer.” I found that funny.
As Christós went next, the man nodded. “Long beard, white robe and funny hat; would I be wrong to guess sorcerer?”
“No. And I’m a good one, so I’m for the princess.”
He touched Christós and he paled. “You are trying to cheat!”
“I can sense it, you have hundred, maybe thousands of spells. Not allowed.”
“But…I didn’t know.”
“No entry! Not allowed. Next.”
Robbie stepped up. “Excuse me sir, I know the gentleman and I’m certain he did not mean to cheat. He’s had a long interest in magic so he must have read of a number of spells without realising they counted. Why not allow him in as an elf, then he can’t use any spells.”
He continued to stare at Christós coldly. He glanced at Robbie and his face softened. “How about a goblin, they’re useless at magic.”
Robbie bent down and spoke confidentially, “My friend is a bit of a womaniser, we don’t want to spoil his fun do we? Make him an elf please.”
He shrugged. “You are also here for the princess? Good, I’ll allow it. He must change to an elf.”
Robbie asked him, “You also favour the princess?”
He laughed. “You misunderstand. Over eight out of ten who enter declare themselves for her enemy. Your group will bring back some small balance so that the game becomes interesting again - not that any of you will last for long. The odds are against you.” He frowned at Christós. “Why haven’t you changed?”
“I don’t know what an elf looks like.”
Stumped, the three of them looked at each other and when Robbie burst into loud laughter the other two soon joined him. Robbie wiped his eyes. “Make yourself into a slim tall man with delicate features and slightly pointed ears.” The two of them roared with laughter again when Christós did. His features were too ‘delicate’ and he looked gay.
“God! I wish I had a camera.” As they continued laughing, poor Christós giving a small smile, I was starting to think we’d never get in to save Cherine!
Since I’ve interrupted myself I might as well mention that this was not the first world they trapped Cherine in. In the first world it was similar to a village in our time and despite them trying to keep her mind too filled with their nastiness, she began to recall her real life. That is why they made this one so ‘real’ with a myriad species of insects, plants and animals. They also populated it with a great number of people who also played such everyday roles as bakers, cooks, carpenters and so on. As to the other methods they used to keep her mind filled with her present misery, I’ll write about them as we come to them or as I narrate from sharing with her.
Some background first, taken from Cherine (Leila):
I do not recall my fathers face. For most of my life he has travelled beyond the mountains, fighting to keep our country safe. My mentor and guardian is an old man named Vorgin. He rules as if he were Regent and has little time for me. Not that he is cold or harsh with me, but he is uncomfortable around children and especially maidens.
Three weeks after my eighteenth birthday we received news that my father, the King, had been killed. Vorgin came to my rooms, told me the news, advised me that I was too young to be crowned as Queen and he would rule on my behalf until he considered me mature enough or I was married. I did not protest, for I have disliked the lessons he imposed on me dealing with economics and the ruling of a country. I much preferred roaming through our gardens creating worlds of my imagination where some beautiful and brave prince fought to make me his. I often walked or rode down to the town in the valley to talk with people there, so I was not unpopular.
Five days after Vorgin took over as Regent, he arrived at my rooms with six men. I did not like the look of them and worried when I saw how pale the face of Vorgin was. One of them, a slender dark haired man with a cruel nose spoke to me directly.
“This old man is useless as Regent. Your country does not prosper and he oppresses the people with his old ways. I am taking over in his place.” Before I could protest they drew their swords and killed Vorgin.
“It is not safe for you to remain here and your habit of walking in the gardens and the town will attract an assassin. You will be moved to be guarded in a safer place.”
They escorted me to the dungeons, none of my court protesting as we passed them. Down there, no others could speak to me or see, so he dropped all pretence of civility. When I protested he slapped me, pushed me through the cell door and locked it.
“Your father has fought my people for most of my life, destroying the wealth of our country. I’ve killed him and now I will redirect the wealth of your country to mine. It will please me to see your people starve as mine have.” He bowed, his lips curling in disdainful amusement. “Prince Ervan at your service my lady.”
I was afforded the barest privacy, a guard sitting by my cell door all day and night. If I wanted water to drink I had to ask the guard. When I did they would taunt me, snatching away the cup as I reached for it or they would ask me what I would give in exchange. I ignored them, sitting on the straw or standing with my head facing a chink of daylight, pretending I could feel the sun on my face as I wandered around my garden.
Ervan came to see me on the second day. I was still unaccustomed to the barbaric ways of guards and told him I had not had a drop of water. He demanded to know from me whether I had asked for some and I told him of the games they played with me. He drew his sword and with the flat of the blade he hit the guard across his face. I had my water, but now the guards hated me and I soon learnt of the myriad ways they could make my life a misery without giving me something specific to complain about.
“You are lucky princess. Females in the dungeons are considered free sport for the guards. I have forbidden them from having you for the time being, but I do not know for how long I will protect you. That should give you something pleasant to contemplate and prevent you suffering from boredom, as you complain.”
The floor of my cell was rough stone and it was always cold to the touch, with a slimy layer of mould and dirt. At night I would shiver from the cold. The straw was filled with vermin and I scratched myself sometimes until I drew blood. The wounds filled with pus and weeks later I collapsed in a fever.
Ervan stood a distance from the table I lay on, his eyes fixed on my face as a rough woman from my town dabbed at my sores with a stinging potion.
“You shall not leave us that easily my little princess. I intend years of satisfying my hate for your father by watching you suffer and turn into a mindless beast. Woman, you will come here once a week to watch her bathe. Provide her with fresh straw once a month and give her a pail and brush to clean her cell. See to it that she is diligent in cleaning it for her smell offends me.” He walked out.
The bath was freezing cold, but it was heavenly feeling clean, even though I had to put on again the same filthy clothes. Only at the second bath did I think of washing my clothes while I bathed. They were wet when I was returned to my cell and I shivered, my teeth chattering.
I was given a pail of water with something added to it, a potion for killing bugs I was told. The woman ordered me to my knees and watched that I scrubbed every tiny part of the floor. By the end of the first day my knees and hands were raw and bleeding from scratches, for the stone is rough, some parts of it sharp as tiny knives and the potion stung my cuts like fire.
I think the only thing that kept me sane was my ability to daydream and my refusal to think of the days to come. Ervan would come each second day, sometimes entering my cell as he talked. It helped, for it gave me something to focus on or else I would have lost myself in my dreams.
One day he entered my cell and he seemed in a good mood. “I have decided you need some small hope or you’ll die on me. I have posted a notice that anyone brave enough to fight his way to your cell and steal you from me shall have you as his wife.”
“I’d rather die.”
He responded by touching the skin of my throat with the long nail of his small finger and slicing across he drew blood. He smiled at my shock and fear and left. The next time he returned he touched the festering wound with a finger and it healed.
“We don’t want to disappoint your suitors who are throwing their lives away for you. They would feel you are no bargain if you are scarred too heavily.”
It become a pattern. One visit he would tear at my skin with his nail and the next visit, after he’d waited for it to become inflamed and swell with pus he would heal it. He would order food when I became a skeleton and when he judged I’d grown healthier he would leave me to starve.
Of all things, the sun, the flowers, the voices of people who cared for me, what I missed most was colour. The grey stones of my cell, the grey of the metal bars, the dirty grey of the straw, the dim light, they made me treasure the remaining colours of my tattered clothes. Gradually my clothes turned a dirty grey-brown. I tore off a small piece that used to have a flower and leaves and hid it for me to look at when I was overcome by my need.
The guards were changed and among them was a younger man, not as brutal in appearance as the others. He seemed to be on guard at my door more often than the others. One day he saw me scratching and spoke to me.
“Princess, I would take you to have an extra bath now and then if it would remain a secret between us.”
“I would not tell.”
He pretended to be thinking. “There is one more problem. When the woman is here we only escort you to the bath while she watches that you do not harm yourself. How would I explain it if you drowned yourself? I would have to be in the room with you.” As I shrank away, he raised a hand. “Fear not, I would not touch you for Prince Ervan has forbidden it.”
His offer turned into a new torture, for by now I was wise enough to know matters would develop step by step until I’d sunk to the worst of my nature if I did not resist the temptation from now.
I’d lost track of time long since so I know not when it was Ervan came to frighten me. As he entered he waved his arm and a mirror took form against a wall. He forced me to look at myself.
“Not much like a princess anymore are you? Do you know what you are beginning to resemble? One of my people after starving because your fathers’ men torched our grain.”
“I was just a girl, I did not know.”
He waved a hand and I saw myself in the mirror clean, my hair shining and my clothes new and fresh. “No, you were not a girl, you were a princess, daughter of your father. You did not object to living like a princess at the cost of those starving, why should you object now?”
I cried out as my image wavered and reverted to what I had become.
One other moment sticks out in my memories. The woman from our town who forced me to clean my cell and enjoyed seeing blood on my hands and knees. One day I spoke to her, asking why she hated me instead of Ervan who was our enemy.
“He is the enemy and has conquered us. He has the right to our hate, but also to all he does to make us suffer. He has the right to the lives of our men. Your father did not, he was meant to protect us. For that we gave him our food and men. He took my husband and both my sons without caring how I would feed myself.” She spat. “Now it is your turn to learn about hate.”
“I don’t hate you, not even Ervan.”
After that she seemed to be slightly less vicious, but she never bent enough to speak one kind word or give me a smile, unless it was because she saw me suffer.
We knew nothing of how Cherine suffered nor of the memories of tortuous months imposed on her mind. In this world we had to strain to sense each other and could not sense her at all.
We walked down the hillside and as we walked we looked at the variety of life, the rich colours and textures of leaves, flowers, tree trunks, pale moss growing up one side, the clear running water in little streams that tasted cool and sweet and marvelled at the detailed imagining of some talent. Mostly our talk was sober and we worried how we would gain entrance to the castle, but now and then we would smile or make some small joke to lift our spirits.
We reached the valley and followed the river, walked around the contour of a hill and saw the town nestled below the castle. There were extensive signs of farming and yet, when we saw the people, they all looked as if they were starving. We learnt to tell the difference of players from those who were of this world from the lack of hunger in their eyes. The soldiers of the enemy did not look much better off.
The ‘One-Eyed Barman’ seemed to be the largest and most popular tavern. At the entrance they asked, “For or against?” We said “For” and were ushered to a room on the right. It was almost empty. They demanded coins and then without asking brought ale for all and milk for me (and Robbie had promised there would be no disadvantages to my coming as a child!), large clay plates were placed before us and a platter in the center filled with beef, potatoes, turnips and carrots. The only person who touched the turnips was Isaac.
We kept our voices low. “Only two others in the room.” Robbie nodded, but concentrated on the food.
The one was a young lad, not more than seventeen or eighteen. He held a book as he ate. I grinned. “He must have chosen to be a philosopher.” Robbie glanced over and his eyes narrowed when he saw the book.
“I wonder what it could be about? Is it taken from something the princess has read?” (We had decided to never speak her name while in this world - at least until we freed her.)
“More likely something A.W. placed in here.”
We ignored the other man. He looked like a lout and we guessed he entered as a thief. He stood up and bringing his ale with him sat at our table without asking.
“I’m Prince Harmen. We ‘for’s’ should stick together, we’re greatly outnumbered.”
“Why are you a ‘for’?” Samuel asked.
“To marry the princess and be king of this land of course.”
“Do you know what the princess looks like?”
His grin was crude. “All cats are grey in the dark, who cares. As long as I’m king what does it matter?”
“Why didn’t you team up with yonder young philosopher?”
He looked at the book reader and laughed. “He’s no philosopher, he’s a thief. I offered, but he prefers to stay alone. Not a bad idea to let him or else he might steal everything we have.”
I pushed my plate away and went to the young man. He put down his book as I stood staring at him. Apart from his pimples and a sort of sallow tone to his skin, he didn’t look too bad.
“Hi, I’m Sam. What are you reading?” In response he raised the cover towards me. ‘Eyes in the Night. (Thirty lessons for professional burglars)’. “Is it interesting?”
He glanced over at Harmen. “It’s boring, but it serves its purpose.” I laughed and sat. “You are a ‘Virginal Damsel’?”
“Not telling.” He did not smile. “Healer.” He just sat there without trying to make conversation. “How many ‘for’s’ are there?”
“They are all in this room.”
“Wow! I guess that makes us the overwhelming majority.” Still no smile. “What is the enemy called and what is he?”
“Prince Ervan. The father of the princess has been at war with his father for decades. The father of the princess was killed and he came to take over this country on his fathers’ behalf.”
“Did he offer to marry her?”
“Ervan? Not likely. He is filled with hatred and wants revenge. He has the princess in a dungeon and it is said he tortures her slowly, enjoying each sign of her spirit crumbling.”
“You are saying she is crumbling?”
“Not as fast as he wants.”
“What happens if we rescue her?”
“Ervan has proclaimed that the person who gets her out of the dungeon marries her and becomes king.”
“Do you trust him?”
“I have no intention of doing so, I intend stealing her. I have no wish to be king.” He paused. “Yes, he will keep his word. As soon as they are married and the husband is made king I think he intends killing them.”
“Oh well, since I can’t marry her and become king without being killed, I think I prefer your idea. How do we steal her?”
“There is no ‘we’, not as long as Harmen is part of your group. He is a brute and acts without a plan. They will come after him and I don’t wish to be close to him when it happens.”
I picked at a splinter on the table as I thought. I did not like the young man and wondered what talents he had for him to be a member of the group that abducted Cherine and Anne. “What is your name?”
“If you know who the Scarlet Pimpernel was, you’ll know my first name.”
“God! Where did you find that book, it’s ancient!”
“It’s been in the family for a while.”
“Were you allowed to mention it in here?” For the first time he looked worried. “Oh well, I guess many people slip up, I doubt they kick them out if it doesn’t affect the game.”
“It is not a game in here.”
“Look, just call me…Albert. Get rid of him and we’ll talk again. Which of you was planning on marrying her?”
“None of us, we just want to save her.”
We communed mind to mind. *I was going to suggest we take a walk, but I’m not certain it’s safe to talk openly anywhere.* We agreed. *As usual Sam has collected information for us and made herself a new friend.* I sent a laugh. *I wouldn’t exactly call him a friend.*
*Why, because he didn’t smile at your jokes? Sam, if he is any good as a thief he is exactly what we need. We have to get rid of Harmen.* *Easier said than done.* Samuel answered. *He’s got a thick skin.*
Robbie disagreed. *I think he’s afraid of being alone. Albert is right, we’ll have to ditch him, he has his own ambitions which will conflict with ours at a critical time. I’m betting he’s after her exactly because he knows who she really is.*
*What about all the people who live here Robbie, when we get her and this world collapses, if they don’t have bodies to return to, do they die?*
*Sammy, you choose the most awkward moments to ask your questions.*
*I had to dad, how will she react if she learns her life was saved at the cost of so many others?*
I returned to whisper to Albert, “Before dawn, meet us where the two large trees overlook the town. Just above the top tree is a rocky knoll. In there.”
As we climbed in the dark I wondered why the man at the desk had not objected to us having healers. I came to the conclusion that all players had healers and then wondered why an elixir was needed, if I was right. It was close to dawn when we arrived, pleased that we’d made good time. Albert was sitting with his back to a rock in the shadows, waiting for us. He did not look winded.
“He did not follow you, I saw him choose a town girl for bedding before I left.”
“How did you get here so fast?”
“You took the long way around. Are we climbing to the top to spy on the castle?”
“We need to get the general layout.”
“You should have asked.” He fished in his bag and pulled out a map.
Robbie laughed. “Are you a Kender?” At his questioning look he waved it away. His mood changed. “Why are you here Albert?”
“Sam invited me.”
“No, I mean, why are you in this game? Why do you want to rescue the princess?”
“I have my reasons, just as you do. Ask no questions and I’ll keep mine to myself.”
“I can’t accept that. If we are successful in getting her out of there, we cannot afford to waste time arguing.”
“You think what you will and decide as you wish - as will I. In the meantime neither loses by us working together.”
Robbie nodded. “Everyone, hand over our provisions. Albert, scatter the parcels so that they cannot be found by others. We need to travel light.”
“You ask a thief to watch over our provisions?” Christós asked with a smile.
Even with the map of the castle, it would still have been necessary to climb the hill. Not many have the talent of taking a two dimensional map and converting it into a three dimensional hologram in their mind. The bulk of the central tower rose above us so we kept low as we examined not only the castle but also the land surrounding it, identifying likely spots for hiding as we approached or left it. Robbie tried sensing the mind of a soldier who stood watch, but he was not successful.
“The only way to enter is through the gate. The walls cannot be climbed.”
“I still want to take a closer look, we have to find a way.”
Albert asked, “Have you a flying spell?”
“It was not on the list.”
He stared at us suspiciously. “All you had to do was ask.” He looked away.
“Shall we approach from the rear? It means we have a lot of walking and climbing to do.” We split the provisions, taking enough for three days and Albert hid the rest.
The sun does not burn in this world, but we were all drenched in sweat by early afternoon. Albert seemed to have an uncanny ability to find the shortest route, but it meant going up and down hills and rocks a number of times per hour. We stopped to chew on our dried meat and sip some water.
Isaac mumbled softly to Christós. “He says he’s glimpsed the walls a number of times. They are decayed and he thinks he could climb them. We will need rope for him to pull us up.”
“This trip we only look. We return to town and try to learn what defences are in place. For instance, is magic used to guard them? How many soldiers patrol, how many locked doors to open as we descend to the dungeon?”
“We need to have at least two portions of the transmogrification potion and two of the vanishing potion. Can we trade weapons for them?”
“Will the enemy trade with us Albert?”
“There are always those who will. Some might have sold theirs to shop owners for provisions. It will cost too much to trade for them, it is better I appropriate what we need.”
That evening, when we stopped to rest, Albert sat in shadow, but I could feel his eyes on me. I wondered whether he has a thing for little girls.
We had decided to use our healers to keep us going without sleep until we had Cherine out of there, but we had not taken into account how much physical exertion is required to clamber over rocky hills. In a pinch our healers could keep us going, but it was not wise, so we curled up to sleep.
We’d set our internal clocks to wake up after four hours. We had a bite to eat and Albert led us again. By dawn we were close to halfway around the castle. As we came around a rocky hillside we saw the walls up close to us and movement made us look up. A soldier turned his back to us just as we appeared. We quickly back-pedalled and he turned around again.
We lost two hours making our way behind another hill. We found the area behind that hill was damp and vegetation grew in a profusion of colour and trees soared over it all. I have never seen that many butterflies of numerous species. My favourite, even in the real world, is a tiny kind that is a kingcup yellow.
As we struggled to make our way through the vegetation I thought to myself that if this were a part of our world I’d come here again. I loved the softly muted light, the odd, now-and-then golden ray among the treetops, the damp aromatic air filled with scents of mushrooms, herbs and flowers. Unfortunately, at that time and place, it was a nuisance that delayed us. Albert edged upwards until we were on the slope of the hill and out of most of the dense foliage.
The next time we came close to the wall we searched for a sentry, but there were no guards in view. We stayed hidden while Isaac made his way to the wall. He ran his hands over the rocks, seemed to dig in his fingers and he started to climb. About six metres above ground he examined the wall again and made his way down and back to us. He reaffirmed his belief that he could climb the wall, only needing a hook and short rope to climb over the top part that jutted out. Robbie looked pasty at the thought of him clinging by toetips and fingertips while he leaned out to swing the hook over the edge.