Out of a land laid waste
To a land untamed,
The lad Drualt led
A ruined, ragtag band.
In his arms, tenderly,
He carried Bruce,
The child king,
First ruler of Bamarre.
So begins Drualt, the epic poem of Bamarre's greatest hero, our kingdom's ideal. Drualt fought Bamarre's monsters-the ogres, gryphons, specters, and dragons that still plague us-and he helped his sovereign found our kingdom. I
Today Bamarre needed a hero more than ever. The monsters were slaughtering hundreds of Bamarrians every year, and the Gray Death carried away even more.
I was no hero. The dearest wishes of my heart were for safety and tranquility. The world was a perilous place, wrong for the likes of me.
Once, when I was four years old and playing in the castle courtyard, a shadow passed over me. I shrieked, certain it was a gryphon or a dragon. My sister, Meryl, ran to me and held me, her arms barely long enough to go around me.
"It's gone, Addle," she whispered. "It's far away by now." And then she crooned a stanza from Drualt.
"Step follows step.
Hope follows courage.
Set your face toward danger.
Set your heart on victory. "
I quieted, soothed by Meryl's voice and her warm breath on my ear.
Meryl was my protector, as necessary to me as air and food. Our mother, Queen Darla, had succumbed to the Gray Death when I was two and Meryl was three. Father rarely visited the nursery. Bella, our governess, loved us in her way, but her way was to moralize and to scold.
Meryl understood me, although we were asdifferent as could be. She was fair, and I was dark complexioned. She was small and compact, a concentration of focused energy. I was always tall for my age, and loose-limbed, and my energy was nervous and fluttery. Meryl was brave, and I was afraid of almost everything -- from monsters to strangers to spiders.
As a child Meryl loved to act out scenes from Drualt or scenes from a made-up drama in which she saved the kingdom. Our games would begin on the miniature carriage that was our nursery's best feature. I'd sit inside, and Meryl would climb up to the driver's seat. We'd travel to the Eskern Mountains, where ogres and gryphons dwelled, or to the elf queen's castle on the shores of the Haun Ocean, or to the western desert, where the dragons had their lairs, or to Mulee Forest, where specters abounded.
She would rescue me from a flaming dragon or a hungry ogre. When I was supposed to, I would shriek in terror that was half real; but when I could, I'd stay still and watch Meryl perform -- that was what I loved.
Her favorite game was the Gray Death adventure. Oddly enough this one didn't frighten me. The Gray Death wasn't a monster or a spider I could see and shiver over. It was invisible. If I caught it, it would be somewhere within me, and while the outside world was fall of danger, I knew my interior. I was certain I could oust an intruder there.
In the game I always portrayed the Gray Death's victim. For the first stage of the disease, the weakness, I'd begin to walk toward the worn nursery couch, growing weaker as I went. After a few steps I'd fall to my knees and begin to crawl. I'd drag myself to the couch but lack the strength to climb up onto it.
I'd fall asleep there on the floor. A moment or two later I'd wake up and rise, consumed by fever. I'd rush to the fireplace and rub ashes into my cheeks, because the faces of the afflicted always turned gray near the end. I'd pretend to shiver, and I'd try to make my teeth chatter.
Meanwhile, Meryl would be busy battling monsters, consulting with sorcerers, climbing mountains, sailing stormy seas. While I shivered, I'd keep one eye on her, because I couldn't start to die until she was ready to rescue me. When she triumphed and found the cure, I'd slump to the floor.
She'd rush to me, cradling the cure in both hands. Sometimes it was an elixir in a golden chalice. Sometimes it was the feather of a gryphon or the tooth of a dragon or even a plain black stone. Kneeling at my side, she'd whisper, "I have found it, maiden. You shall live." She'd cure me, and I'd jumpup. Then we'd frolic about the nursery, skipping around the carriage, banging on the suit of armor, clasping hands and dancing around the small spinning wheel.
We knew that a cure would be found one day. A specter had prophesied it, and the prophecies of specters always came true. The cure would be found when cowards found courage and rain fell over all Bamarre. That was all we knew. No one knew when the cure would be found, by whom, or what form it would take.
Once, at the end of our game, I asked Meryl if she really planned to quest for the cure. I was nine at the time, and Meryl was ten.
"I'll leave as soon as I'm strong enough to ride a charger."
She'd never come back! A monster would kill her.
She took a heroic stance, legs apart, brandishing an imaginary sword. "I'll find the cure, and knights will flock to me. We'll destroy the monsters and save Bamarre. Then I'll return home."
She wouldn't. She'd be dead. But I knew better than to say so. Instead I asked, "What will I do while you're away?"
She lowered her pretend sword and smiled... The Two Princesses of Bamarre
. Copyright © by Gail Levine. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.