Mandra, p.1
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  by Chris Slusser

  Copyright 2005 by Chris Slusser

  All rights reserved.

  Chapter 1

  He saw red out of the corner of his eye and calmly looked toward it. His breath fogged the air, but when it cleared, he realized what he was looking at. It was a form, lying 20 feet away in the snow at the base of a tree. He ran over to it.

  It was a girl, maybe twenty years old. She was unconscious. There was a red scarf wrapped around her head. Her blond hair was coming out from under it in messy strands. He kneeled down and pulled off his glove to touch her cheek. She was alive.

  The man quickly got to his feet and ran through the trees. "Sire!"

  * * *

  She walked in the garden thoughtfully. It was late at night, but she was too preoccupied to sleep. She had a lot to think about. Actually, the trouble was that she couldn't find much of anything to think about. Her memory was lost.

  From what she'd been told, she'd probably fallen from a horse after being hit by a low hanging branch. The horse had never returned, but its hoof prints were left in the snow.

  It was good that the king had found her when he did or she would've frozen to death. He and his two men had carried her back to the castle.

  That was where she was now, in the garden at his castle, in Aerineva.

  Frozen trees and bushes sparkled in the moonlight. Up above a light burned just inside His Majesty's windows. He kept a close watch on her. He must've heard her in the passageway.

  The castle was well protected. She was in no danger. Why was he so worried? It was all right. He was a kind man. King Valen was well-liked by the few subjects he had. At least she knew she was in good hands. Just then he stepped softly into the garden.

  "Oh, Your Majesty, good evening."

  "How do you feel?" he asked her.

  "Oh, I'm better. My head is a little tender, but I'll be fine."

  He smiled for a moment, "You know, I'll have to call you something eventually."

  "Oh, yes..." she muttered. She hadn't thought to wonder about her name.

  "Would you like to invent a name... or shall I?" he asked.

  "Why don't you?" she said smiling, "but make it a pretty name, of course."

  "Of course. I wouldn't dream of anything else," he assured her. Then he brought a finger to his lips, deep in thought. "Isabel? How would that suit you?" he asked. "I'm sure I could think of better, but given only a moment's thought..." he trailed off charmingly.

  "Oh, Isabel is wonderful. I love it. Thank you," she exclaimed. "I would've muddled it up, I'm sure." She blushed.

  "Well then, Isabel," he began, taking her hand, "can I walk you to your room?"

  "Yes." She nodded, and followed him into the castle.

  * * *

  "You know, Isabel," Valen said across the breakfast table, "I was very surprised to find you lying there in the snow alone. It's customary for a lady to have an escort while traveling."

  "Perhaps the gentleman went for help. Do you suppose?" Isabel asked.

  "I think not." Valen wrinkled his brow. "The evidence leans more toward a solitary journey. Wouldn't a gentleman place you on his horse, and ride to a doctor, rather than leave you lying there?"

  "You may be right," Isabel answered, sipping her tea. "I still can't imagine what I could've been thinking to go out in such weather in the first place. You said it was especially cold that night?"

  "Yes, I almost didn't go out hunting at all that day."

  Isabel shuddered.

  "It's all right." He placed his hand on hers, "You're safe now. Okay?" He placed a finger under her chin.

  "Yes, I'm all right," she said glancing up. "It's just chilling to think what might have happened. Death by freezing—thieves could've found me instead of you."

  "Now, don't think of such things. What would you like to do today? Let's keep your mind off the accident," Valen suggested.

  "Shall we ride?" she asked.

  "So soon after your accident?"

  "Well then cards... perhaps?" she queried, trying to hide her disappointment.

  "Yes, that's much better. We want you well, don't we? As soon as possible. Come." He moved her chair as she stood. "I'll teach you a game."

  She smiled and took his arm.

  Valen was a kind man, much older than herself, with white streaking through his gray hair. He was of average height, and thin. He seemed to be in excellent health for an older gentleman, and full of energy.

  As they walked, he talked about his kingdom, and how he wished it were bigger, but with an army the size of his, battle would be suicide. That was the one thing he would change if he could, he said. But at his age what could he do?

  "My dear, do you think you might like a tutor? For any subject?" he asked her. She only looked at him with questioning eyes. "I mean, it would pass the time, wouldn't it? I suppose it could be arranged. Latin, geography, poetry, perhaps? Hmm?"

  "Well, I don't know..."

  "Oh, yes, enough time for that later. We should be trying to figure out who you are, shouldn't we? I will look into it, you know." He suddenly stopped and looked seriously at her.

  That being said, he continued leading her to the games room.

  * * *

  That night, as usual, Isabel was having trouble sleeping. The nightmare kept coming back, and how was she supposed to know where it came from when she didn't know that much about herself? Had she been married? Did she have children?

  In the nightmare, she is in a castle, not Valen's, but another, and she's being chased by someone or something. She can't see it. She can only hear the brisk march of an armed guard... maybe. That's when she wakes up, every time.

  Her fear was almost gone now, and her mind wandered to other things. To Valen. It was almost as if he didn't want her to think at all. To have no time to possibly remember her past. He even made decisions for her. She didn't want to complain. Where would she be without him? If only she could be alone for a while.

  With that thought in mind, she quickly dressed in one of the simpler gowns she had. Valen had had many made for her when she'd arrived. He liked to dress her up like a doll, Isabel thought with a chuckle. Most of the gowns were a bit extravagant. Lovely to look at and admire, but a nuisance to wear. They would have to do for now.

  She opened her door carefully, so it wouldn't creak. With a cloak over one arm, she crept slowly down the passageway. She hoped Valen was sleeping and not listening to see if she'd go out again. There were guards here and there, but she could avoid them. Valen hadn't yet taken to propping one up against her chamber door. Thank goodness, she thought.

  Isabel needed to walk when she was thinking. This much she did know about herself. She smiled as she breathed in the crisp night air. It was a chilly night, but to be out in it was better than pacing her floor. Cape over her head and body, she made her way past the garden this time and onto the grounds themselves. In spring there would be rolling hills of grass with green trees here and there, she supposed. Now it was a rumpled blanket of snow sparkling in the moonlight. There was hardly a sound as she shuffled through the powder.

  She walked deeper into a thicket of trees weaving between their gnarled branches. She heard a noise, and stopped walking. The noise had stopped. It must have been a strange echo of her steps. She began to walk again and the noise followed. Once again she stopped, beginning to fear she was being watched. Faster this time, she made her way toward the clearing. The noise grew faster too. She stopped. It couldn't have been made by her, though it corresponded to her perfectly. In the darkness of the thick trees she couldn't see well.

  Her heart pounding, Isabel decided to make a run for the clearing, and get away from the
animal or whatever it was. She began to run, and the noise followed at the same pace. Finally in the clearing she tried to turn to see what it was, but as she did her foot caught on that ridiculous fancy gown.

  She tumbled to the ground. Her pursuer had been so close it fell right with her and landed on top of her as she screamed, her voice muffled by the snow.

  The person scrambled off of her and pulled her arm to turn her over. In fear she glanced up at a dark figure, black cape and hood, which overshadowed his face. It was a man. He said nothing, only held up a hand, then quickly fled into the night, past the clump of trees and out of her sight.

  She was still gasping for breath as she gathered her snow covered gown around her, and struggled to her feet. It was over now, he was gone, but the fear remained. Cape clutched tightly around her, she hurried to the castle.

  Were the castle grounds this badly guarded? Was Valen's army so small he couldn't protect the land surrounding him? She would have to be more careful on her excursions. She felt lucky to be alive. Why had the man not said anything? Or taken anything? Especially her virtue. A woman alone was prey for a man like that, she thought. But her curiosity remained. What a strange fellow.

  Once again in her room, Isabel climbed out of her wet clothing and right into her warm bed. She felt ready to face her dreams again. The nightmares could be no match for the real scare she'd just experienced.

  Chapter 2

  A small hand tapped her on the shoulder as she rolled away from her dreams. "Yes?" she muttered. A fairly young and tiny maid, teenage perhaps, stood politely at Isabel's bedside.

  "I'm sorry, miss, but the king would like you to go on a journey with him for the day. It is early, but he asked me to wake you. Will you go with him?"

  "Yes, of course, I'll be ready as soon as I can," Isabel said quietly as she stretched herself into a sitting position. "Did he say where we would go?" she asked as the maid reached the door.

  "No, miss, he didn't say."

  "Thank you, Zenie."

  "Yes, miss." Young Zenie smiled and left the room, surprised Isabel had remembered her name. She shut the door quietly on her way out.

  The rumpled wet dress she'd worn the night before had been discreetly removed to be cleaned Isabel noticed. She hadn't heard anyone. She had slept more soundly last night. There were no nightmares. There was, however, a curious dream about the man in the black cape.

  He had stumbled into her, as in real life, and helped her up, but this time he spoke, and he said only one word, "Mandra." She'd never heard it before. It could be a name or a word from another language. She did not know. Then the man had run off, like a strange messenger, there just to give her the word. The meaningless word. Isabel dressed as fast as she could, eager to see where they were going. Perhaps they were going to try to find out who she was.

  Down in the dining hall she greeted Valen quickly as she made herself comfortable in her chair, "Good morning, Sir. I hear we will be making a trip today?"

  "Oh ho!" He laughed, "Let's not forget we know each other too well for formalities. Why, there's no other person you know as well as me. Call me Valen, my dear," he coaxed her.

  "Valen," she corrected herself with a smile and a nod, "we will be traveling?"

  "Oh, think nothing of it, a mere jaunt into the western hills. 'Tis a sort of... hideout for me, you might say. I do not like being a king every day, you know. Sometimes thoughts of politics can be too troublesome. You will join me, I hope."

  "Yes. I told Zenie I would." Isabel smiled, but inside she was a bit disappointed. She didn't need to take her mind off her troubles. She needed her mind on them. Her mind was her trouble.

  "Coincidentally, were you in another accident, my dear? The maid found your dress on the floor this morning, all wet. Are you all right?" Valen asked.

  "Oh," she cleared her throat, "yes, I was walking in the garden again and tripped on something. The dress was soaked." Isabel glanced at him sheepishly.

  "No bother, I'm sure." He patted her hand. "We should be going now."

  Inside the carriage, Valen kept glancing at her and smiling, and Isabel kept her eyes on the passing scenery, hoping she might recognize something. She must've been this way before to travel alone, she supposed. But nothing looked familiar to her. It was no use, for now anyway.

  Valen's "hideaway" turned out to be just that. It was a cabin actually, set back from the road in a mixture of trees and open space. He led her by the hand in the front door. It stuck at first, but Valen gave it a shove and it swung open for them. There was a cold chill in the air, and a dusty smell. He waved his arm and the two servants he'd brought came in and set about making the place habitable. A fire was made in the bigger room. Another room was a sort of pantry or kitchen.

  He collected their wraps, and laid them across an old wooden chair. He motioned for her to sit on the long sofa, the only other sitting place. A short table filled the space between the chair and couch. He sat beside her and once again took one of her hands in his own.

  "Now, don't be alarmed, my dear, but I'm going to introduce you to someone." He paused and her heart skipped a beat. He looked so serious. Who could it be? A silly thought crossed her mind that it could be the man in black, the man who'd been watching her in the trees. Her heart beat faster with that irrational thought.

  Then Valen continued, "Someone who can help you with your memory, if we are lucky. Now, have you ever been in a trance, darling?" He looked earnestly at her.

  "A trance?" Isabel's eyes widened. This sounded strange to her.

  "Apparently not, but if you could remember it, we wouldn't need it now... what was I thinking? Well!" he said suddenly. "We will have to pass the time until my friend arrives, won't we?"

  She nodded, still perplexed about the trance comment.

  "A game of cards, then?" he asked. "Not too rowdy or upsetting." He smiled as he pulled an old deck off the mantle. "It's really our only choice, I'm afraid. Spare surroundings, you know." He winked.

  "Oh, no, that's fine, Valen," Isabel assured him.

  "Good." He began shuffling and pulled the small table closer to them. "My friend is a young man, about your age actually. He's been living with a strange tribe of gypsies for many years, almost since childhood, I suppose. I've only known him a year or two. Found him asleep on this very couch when I arrived here for a hunting excursion. He hunts as well, and that's how we became friends at all. I would've had him dealt with otherwise."

  He looked somber, and Isabel somewhat feared he really would have had him "dealt with".

  He continued, "Breaking into my property like he did... but it's fine. Let me see, what else can I tell you?" he mumbled to himself. "His name is Nole. You will be kind to him, won't you?"

  "But why shouldn't I?" Isabel looked at him seriously. She was growing more uneasy.

  "Well, my dear, how can I put this nicely?" He thought for a moment. "He's... a frightful thing to look upon, I'm afraid."

  Isabel looked worried.

  "But he's not frightening in himself, you must understand," Valen continued. "It's just his ways. They're... a bit wild, you might say. Well, you'll see what I mean, but I just wanted to warn you, darling. All right?" Valen's eyes widened as they looked at her, as if waiting for the answer.

  "Valen..." She rested her card filled hand in her lap, "what do you mean by a trance? What is this... Nole going to do to me?" she questioned him.

  "A trance, my dear, is like dreaming when you're awake. It's mostly about being relaxed. You'll lay here, on the lounge, and he'll speak to you in an even voice, about nothing in particular. Sometimes he'll speak in the tribe's tongue instead of his own. It does not matter as long as you fall into the trance. Then he'll ask you some questions." He saw by her face she was relieved by this new information. Apparently she'd been expecting worse. "He's never tried it on someone who's lost as much memory as you have, but it's helpful for finding lost items, treating illnesses, and such. Don't worr
y." He patted her hand.

  "I won't." She smiled at him.

  The card game continued for a half hour or more before they heard someone stomping through the crisp snow. Before Valen could even stand, Nole was inside the cabin. Knocking seemed an unnecessary formality for him. He closed the door behind himself and began to take off his wrap. It was a vulgar wrap to Isabel's eyes. It was made of several animal's furs sewn haphazardly together. He was indeed a frightening sight, even if one were prepared beforehand. His hair, which was brown and long, appeared never to have been cared for at all. It hung in total disarray around his face. Although he appeared clean, his face had a dirty brownish color from sun, wind, and cold exposure. His hands as well. He wore simple garments underneath his cover. Ones that a peasant might wear. Once free of his strange cape, Nole stood quietly and only waited for a sign from Valen about what he was to do.

  Valen, of course, had kept his attention on Isabel to gauge her reaction to the wild looking young man. She appeared taken aback at first, but seemed fine at present. "Nole," Valen began, "this is Isabel, my new ward, you might say."

  Nole gave a nod and sat in the chair with their coats flung over the back.

  Isabel nodded in return and set her cards on the table.

  "Shall we have her lie here, Nole?" Valen indicated the couch. "Or seated? Which is better?"

  "Yes, here," Nole answered putting his hand on the couch. "Lie back," he instructed her quietly.

  Isabel gingerly lifted her skirts with her hands to cover her legs as she laid them on the couch. She settled back just as Valen quickly placed a folded cloak under her head and shoulders. Folding her hands over her stomach, she waited for Nole to begin.

  "Close your eyes," Nole said and placed his hand over her eyes briefly. "Listen, and let yourself relax," he instructed. Then he proceeded to do what Valen had said he would.

  As Isabel lay still, he spoke to her gently, sending her mind wandering. It soon grew tired of that, and she drifted in a half-awake state as Nole finished his calming speech.

  "Isabel, are you asleep?" Nole asked.

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