A Christmas Treaty
By Cate McDermott
Esther stepped to the edge of the clearing and looked around. There was nothing particularly interesting to see, only the bare winter branches overhead and knee-high bunches of high coarse grass, of the type commonly found in swamps. Esther was quite used to these kinds of surroundings by now, after three months of living with the band of outlaws who had captured her on her way to live with her aunt and uncle, the King and Queen of Tryfort, who intended Esther as their heir. The outlaws also wished Esther to become the next ruler, but on their own terms, after they had ousted her tyrannical relatives from power. Esther trusted the brigand gang much more than she did her aunt and uncle, whom she knew only from none-too-flattering hearsay; but her conscientious sense of duty would not let her rest. She had a right to the throne only through the path the current rulers had chosen for her; to gain it any other way could not be otherwise than wrong, no matter how much her new friends—and her own parents!—had been ill-treated by King Rothbart and Queen Tressine.
“Princess Esther?” Marcus, the bandit chief’s son, stepped up alongside her, a wooden bucket in each hand. He peered at her curiously from under the long dark locks tangled on his forehead. “I’m going to fetch water for our supper; wouldn’t you like to come with me?”
“Yes, of course.” Esther felt, once again, that strange feeling of grateful relief that so often came over her when she was with Marcus. Although she was technically not the bandits’ prisoner, she didn’t have much opportunity to do things on her own; someone, doubtless instructed so by the chief, would always turn up surreptitiously by her side just when she got far enough away from the camp to feel free. With Marcus, however, Esther could go wherever she liked, and somehow his presence did not put the feeling of restraint upon her that some of the other members’ company did. Marcus respected her, and he was no older and no more powerful within the band than she was. Perhaps that was why Esther trusted him.
Taking one of the buckets from his hand, Esther walked ahead of Marcus to the stream, which was a little way away from the camp, where the water was clean and fresh, unlike the icy puddles in the swamp. It was nearly Christmas-time, and there was a thin layer of ice by the very edge of the stream. In the middle, the current kept it from freezing over.
Kneeling down, Esther filled her bucket, and waited for Marcus to do the same. He did not do so immediately however, but placed his own bucket on the ground, turned upside down, and placed his foot on it and gazed soberly out into the distance, across the stream. Esther didn’t think she had ever known anyone who could be quite so solemn as Marcus; even her former maid, Alyssa, had had a bit more natural liveliness to her graceful face and manner!
“What’s the matter?” Esther ventured after a moment, once it became clear that Marcus had no intentions of breaking the silence himself.
Marcus sat down upon the bucket and surveyed Esther gravely, his hands resting upon his knees. “I would like to ask you a question, if I may, Princess Esther.”
“Well, certainly you may!” Esther had to laugh; it was so humorous, she felt, for anyone to feel any awkwardness about addressing her, simple little Maiden Esther of Meriway. The thought of her being a future queen had never seemed more unlikely than it did at this moment, or more incongruous with the practical, unassuming person she actually was. Why should Marcus be so hesitant to make a request of her, like a courtier before a magnificently supercilious royal?
“What are you doing here, Your Highness?” The question took Esther quite off her guard, accompanied as it was by a deep, searching look from Marcus’ dark brown eyes.
“Why, you asked me to come with you,” Esther stammered slightly, wondering if there could possibly be anything wrong with her friend. He didn’t look ill, but then, swamp fever came on quickly and it was said to make people strangely delirious—could he have forgotten she had come with him?
“No, I don’t mean that, I mean here, in this forest, among us outlaws.” Marcus began to speak more quickly as he went on. “Sometimes I have thought—but then again I am not sure, whether you have ever in your heart agreed with Father’s plans for making you Queen, if he carries through the revolt he and the band have been planning ever since I can remember. Will it ever really be undertaken, I wonder, and even if it is, how can it be successful? King Rothbart and Queen Tressine have so many more troops, so many well-placed strongholds that can be easily defended . . . but be that as it may, my place is here, by his side and at his bidding. But is it your place, Princess Esther?” His eyes searched hers once again, deep and dark as two woodland pools, filled with probing concern.
“I don’t know,” Esther responded slowly, sitting back on her heels and beginning to tear the edges off of a pointed holly leaf she had torn from a nearby bush. “Sometimes I think it would be the best way, but then again that could just be because I already know I don’t like or trust King Rothbart or Queen Tressine. But that isn’t any reason why I should have to fight for my throne, instead of just going to court and waiting to succeed them lawfully—oh, but what’s the use of talking about it, Marcus?” Esther looked almost imploringly into his face as she went on: “There’s nothing I can do about my situation, and it puzzles me to think about it all. Maybe if something turns up—then I’ll know how to act, who to support, where I am called to go and what to do. Now, I’m helpless and must simply follow where you go.”
“I don’t know about that.” Marcus’ voice was very low, but distinct, as he stepped over the bucket and crouched down beside her, throwing a cautious glance over his shoulder. “No one saw us come here; I was going to get the water and no one knew I had asked you to come with me.”
“Well, what good does that do? Are you suggesting I should just run away, here, now, and trust that the few hours, minutes only perhaps, that would pass before my absence was noticed, would be enough to throw any pursuit off my track? I wouldn’t even know which way to go.” Esther couldn’t help it if she sounded a little exasperated.
“But I do.” Marcus pulled a map out of his pocket as he continued, “I could direct you to the next safe house, Your Highness, and you could travel easily from one to another until you had reached the court—look, I’ve drawn out the whole path for you.” Esther instinctively took the vellum sheet he held out to her, and listened dumbly as he went on, speaking more rapidly once again, and throwing frequent glances behind him, as though he feared they would be overheard by mischance. “Not one of the farms or village homes I’ve marked is more than half a night’s journey on foot away from another; if pursued, you could remain at one of them until they had passed, and then reach the next before they came back. Then they would be confused, and would never be able to pick up your trail. But I don’t really think Father would send anyone after you, anyway,” Marcus looked away and plucked at the grass as he spoke. “He knows you have a right to the throne; his only hope is that you will use your right to aid him and his friends in their rights.”
“I’ve already promised that I would,” Esther’s voice was also low, but steady. “I wouldn’t go back on my word; you know that, Marcus.”
“Then will you promise me something?” Marcus looked up at her again, and then abruptly rose to his feet.
“What?” Esther also rose, and stood facing him, suddenly uneasy. She remembered the bandit chief’s half-serious suggestion that she should marry Marcus when they were grown, and so inherit the throne together. Did Marcus share his father’s ambitious desires, or was it rather that his steady friendship with her had always been due to a deeper feeling?
But Marcus said nothing that would give Esther a clue into this issue. He apparently had not thought about it at all. “I only ask, Your Highness, that when you come into your throne, you will accept my services,” he said very quietly. “You are my rightful queen; whether you do or do not ever achieve your lawful rights makes no difference to me and my duty to you. My life is at your command, and I wish only that you will trust me and permit me to serve you as you may require, even though you may leave our band now. And I would ask that my loyalty to you might be the price of my father’s and friends’ safety, even if you discover their claims to not be so lawful as your own?”
“Of course, Marcus; but may I ask, why you are making me this offer now?” Esther said slowly. “You could have helped me to escape at any time during these past three months, had you been so inclined. What made up your mind?”
“It’s Christmas,” Marcus said simply.
Esther made no reply. There was no need for one. They both understood each other, as always.
After a moment, Marcus turned and silently stripped a long swathe of bark from a nearby birch tree, twisting it into a strange little cup. He knelt to fill it from the stream, drank, and then offered it to Esther.
Esther took it from him with a suitably grave expression. In the time and place where she and Marcus lived, two people drinking from the same cup was the sign of an indissoluble compact, a binding tie between them that secured any kind of treaty that might be made. She drank, and handed the cup back to Marcus. He dropped it carelessly to the ground; it was of no further use. Esther could not but think of how strange it was, how the most important of actions are often sealed with the most simple of objects or practices. She and Marcus were now bound together as allies for life, and no one else knew anything about it, perhaps never would.
But she had no more time to think. Marcus took her elbow and guided her a little further down the stream, describing the route she needed to take through the forest as they went. “You can cross in the shallows here, Your Highness; take these,” he pressed a handful of strangely carved tokens into her hand. “These are the badges of the band; you can use them to establish a footing of trust at the safe houses. Most of those people would take in any weary traveler regardless, but it still might be best—it would prevent any awkward questions as to your identity. I don’t think you ought to tell anyone who you really are, until you reach the court of Tryfort, Princess Esther.”
“I won’t.” Esther tucked her slippers into her sash, then, lifting her skirt above her ankles, carefully crossed the rapid little stream. Shallow though it was at this spot, the current still pulled strongly at her feet, and she had to take small, slow steps to keep from being knocked off balance. She did not want to fall down on the muddy bottom!
But at last she was across. She paused for a moment and looked back to where Marcus was standing, still in the same spot on the bank, surveying her gravely. He made a slight motion with his hand for her to go. Esther was conscious of a tight feeling in her throat; after all her attempts to decide whose side she was really on, it was rather ironic that she should be able to escape from the outlaws at the very same moment that she definitely knew she wished that she could stay with them! But Marcus was right, of course; her place was at the court, no matter how unattractive the prospect was. Esther lifted her chin bravely; she was not a girl to shirk her duty.
“Goodbye, Marcus,” she called softly across the stream. “And thank you.”
“It was nothing, Your Highness, and I am sure we shall meet again,” came the scarcely audible reply, as Marcus stooped to pick up the water buckets, and prepared to head back to the outlaw camp.
Esther looked quickly about her, recognized the landmarks Marcus had described, and prepared to strike out on the path he had outlined for her, map in hand. She did not look back again, and she was never sure whether or not she heard a faint “Merry Christmas, Your Highness” just before she was swallowed up in the dense woodland. But it didn’t matter; it was Christmas, a time for generosity, for hope, and for keeping of promises.
To Be Continued