ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE YEAR OF THE VIOLENT STORMS that tore in from the sea, the first horde of warriors from a distant land came across our mountains and onto our shores. With steel weapons strapped to their chests and burnished armor glistening like shards of glass in the midday sun, they marched in pairs for as far as the eye could see. They did not ask permission nor care that they trespassed. Nay, they were on a quest, and nothing would get in their way. Crossing our fair land, they took our horses and our food, trampled our crops, used our women, and killed many of our fine men. They left destruction in their wake…all in the name of God.
They called themselves Crusaders. They fervently believed that their mission was holy and good because they had been told so by the pope, who blessed them and commanded them to journey to the other side of the world. They were to vanquish the infidels and force them to embrace their God and their religion. If the heathens refused, the soldiers were to kill them with their holy and blessed swords.
The pass through our mountains was the only route that would take the Crusaders forward on their quest, so they marched across it in legions, and once they reached the harbor on the other side of the mountains, they stole our ships to sail across the sea toward their destination.
Our small country was then called Monchanceux. We were ruled by our uncle, the benevolent King Grenier. He was a man who loved his homeland and wanted to protect it. We were not a rich country, but we were content. We had enough. When the invading horde stole from us, our king was enraged, but he did not allow anger to guide his hand. Because he was such a clever ruler, King Grenier came upon a solution.
He would make the next group of invaders pay a toll to cross over the mountain. Since the pass was so narrow, it could easily be defended. Our soldiers were conditioned to the cold and the snow and the bitter night winds. They could protect the ridge for months at a time, and winter fast approached.
The leader of these righteous invaders was outraged at the notion of paying for anything. He and his men were on a holy mission. He threatened to kill every soul in Monchanceux, including women and children, if he and his men were denied passage. Were King Grenier and his subjects in the good graces of the church, or were they heathens standing in the way of the Lord’s work? The answer would determine their fate.
It was at that very moment that our good and wise king embraced religion. He told the leader of the army that he and all his subjects were just as holy, and he would prove it beyond any doubt.
He called forth the people of Monchanceux and addressed them from the balcony of the palace. The leader of the crusading army stood behind him.
“From this day forward our country will be called St. Biel in honor of my family’s patron saint. He is the protector of the innocent,” King Grenier announced. “We will build statues of St. Biel and paint his image on the doors to our cathedral so that anyone who comes to our shores will know of his goodness, and we will send tribute to the pope to show our sincerity and our humility. The toll I collect will pay for this tribute.”
The leader of the traveling throng found himself in a predicament. If he refused to pay the toll—in gold, of course, for the king would accept nothing less—then wouldn’t he be refusing to allow the king to give tribute to the pope? And if the pope got wind that the Crusader had refused, what would the pontiff do? Excommunicate him? Execute him?
After a long night of contemplation and a good deal of ranting and raving, the military leader decided to pay the toll. It was a momentous occasion, for a precedent was set, and from that moment on, every Crusader desiring passage through our lands paid the toll without question.
Our king was true to his word. He had the gold melted down and made into coins, and upon each one was the image of St. Biel, a halo above his head.
The royal treasury had to be expanded to make room for all the gold coins, and a ship was prepared for the voyage to deliver the offering to the Holy Father. One day huge, heavy crates were loaded into the ship’s cargo hold, and a crowd of citizens gathered at the harbor to watch the vessel depart for Rome. Shortly after that historic day, rumors began to spread. No one could verify that he had actually seen the gold or could estimate how much was sent. Several ambassadors claimed that only a pittance reached the pope. The talk of our king’s vast fortune swelled and then receded like the tide lapping at our shores.
Eventually a quicker route to the Holy Land was discovered, and the Crusaders no longer tramped through our country. We were grateful for the solitude.
We were not, however, left in peace. Every few years someone arrived looking for the now-legendary gold. A baron from England came, for his king had heard the rumor, but after our ruler allowed him to make a thorough search of the palace and the grounds, the baron told him that he would return to England with the news: there was no treasure to be found. Because King Grenier had been so hospitable, the baron warned him that Prince John of England was considering invading St. Biel. John, the baron explained, wanted to rule the world and was impatiently waiting to take over England’s crown. The baron had no doubt that St. Biel would soon become yet another possession of England.
The invasion came one year later. Once St. Biel officially belonged to England, the search for the hidden gold resumed. Witnesses swore there was no rock left unturned.
If there had ever been a treasure, it had vanished.
P RINCESS GABRIELLE WAS BARELY SIX YEARS OLD WHEN SHE was summoned to her mother’s deathbed. Escorting her was her faithful guard, two soldiers on either side, their gait slow so she could keep up with them as they solemnly made their way down the long corridor. The only sound was their boots clicking against the cold stone floor.
Gabrielle had been called to her mother’s deathbed so many times she’d lost count.
As she walked, she kept her head bowed, staring intently at the shiny rock she’d found. Mother was going to love it. It was black with a tiny white streak zigzagging all around it. One side was as smooth as her mother’s hand when she stroked the side of Gabrielle’s face. The rock’s other side was as rough as her papa’s whiskers.
Every day at sunset Gabrielle brought her mother a different treasure. Two days ago she’d captured a butterfly. It had such pretty wings, gold with purple splotches. Mother declared it was the most beautiful butterfly she’d ever seen. She praised Gabrielle for being so gentle with one of God’s creatures as she walked to the window and let it fly away.
Yesterday Gabrielle had gathered flowers from the hill outside the castle walls. The scent of heather and honey had surrounded her, and she thought the lovely aroma even more pleasing than her mother’s special oils and perfumes. Gabrielle had tied a pretty ribbon around the stems and tried to fashion a nice bow, but she didn’t know how and she’d made a mess of it. The ribbon had come undone before she handed the bouquet to her mother.
Rocks were Mother’s favorite treasures. She kept a basketful that Gabrielle had collected for her on a table next to her bed, and she would love this rock most of all.
Gabrielle wasn’t worried about today’s visit. Her mother had promised that she wouldn’t go away to heaven any time soon, and she never broke her promises.
The sun cast shadows along the stone walls and floor. If Gabrielle hadn’t been on an errand with her rock, she would have liked to chase the shadows and try to capture one. The long corridor was one of her favorite places to play. She loved to hop on one foot from one stone to another and see how far she could get before falling. She hadn’t made it to the second arched window yet, and there were five more windows to go.
Sometimes she closed her eyes, stretched her arms out wide, and spun and spun until she lost her balance and tumbled to the floor, so dizzy the walls seemed to fly about her head.
Most of all, she loved to run down the corridor, especially when her father was home. He was such a big, grand man, taller than any of the pillars in the church. Her papa would call to her and wait until she reached him. Then he scooped her up into his arms and lifted her high above his head. If they were in the courtyard, she raised her hands to the sky, certain she could almost touch a cloud. Papa always pretended to lose his grip so that she would think he was about to drop her. She knew he never would, but she squealed with delight over the possibility. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held tight as he strode toward her mother’s rooms. When he was in an especially happy mood he would sing. Papa had a terrible singing voice, and sometimes Gabrielle giggled and covered her ears it was so awful, but she never really laughed. She didn’t want to hurt his tender feelings.
Papa wasn’t at home today. He had left Wellingshire to visit his uncle Morgan in northern England, and he wouldn’t be home for several days. Gabrielle wasn’t concerned. Mother wouldn’t die without him by her side.
Stephen, the leader of the guards, opened the door to her mother’s chamber and coaxed Gabrielle to enter by giving her a gentle little nudge between her shoulder blades. “Go on, Princess,” he urged.
She turned around with a disgruntled frown. “Papa says you’re to call my mama Princess Genevieve, and you’re supposed to call me Lady Gabrielle.”
“Here in England, you are Lady Gabrielle,” He tapped the crest emblazoned on his tunic, “But in St. Biel, you are our princess. Now go, your mother is waiting.”
Seeing Gabrielle, her mother called out. Her voice was weak, and she looked terribly pale. For as long as Gabrielle could remember, her mother had stayed in bed. Her legs had forgotten how to walk, she’d explained to Gabrielle, but she was hopeful, praying that they would one day remember. If that miracle were to happen, she promised Gabrielle that she would stand barefoot in the clear stream to gather stones with her daughter.
And she would dance with Papa, too.
The chamber was crowded with people. They made a narrow path for her. The priest, Father Gartner, was chanting his prayer in a low whisper near the alcove, and the royal physician, who always frowned and liked to make her mother bleed with his black, slimy bugs, was also in attendance. Gabrielle was thankful he hadn’t put any bugs on her mother’s arms today.
The maids, the stewards, and the housekeeper hovered beside the bed. Mother put down her tapestry and needle, shooed the servants away, and motioned to Gabrielle.
“Come and sit with me,” she ordered.
Gabrielle ran across the room, climbed up onto the platform, and thrust the rock at her mother.
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” she whispered as she took the rock and carefully examined it. “This is the best one yet,” she added with a nod.
“Mother, you say that every time I bring you a rock. It’s always the best one.”
Her mother patted a spot next to her. Gabrielle scooted closer and said, “You can’t die today. Remember? You promised.”
“Papa will be awful angry, too, so you better not.”
“Lean closer, Gabrielle,” her mother said. “I have need to whisper.”
The sparkle in her eyes told Gabrielle she was playing her game again.
“A secret? Are you going to tell me a secret?”
The crowd moved forward. All were eager to hear what she would say.
Gabrielle looked around the room. “Mother, why are all these people here? Why?”
Her mother kissed her cheek. “They think that I know where a great treasure is hidden, and they hope that I will tell you where it is.”
Gabrielle giggled. She liked this game. “Are you going to tell me?”
“Not today,” she answered.
“Not today,” Gabrielle repeated so that the curious onlookers would hear.
Her mother struggled to sit up. The housekeeper rushed forward to place pillows behind her back. A moment later the physician announced that her color was improving.
“I am feeling much better,” she said. “Leave us now,” she ordered, her voice growing stronger with each word. “I would like a moment alone with my daughter.”
The physician looked as though he wanted to protest, but he kept silent as he ushered the group from the chamber. He motioned for two maids to stay behind. The women waited by the door to do their mistress’s bidding.
“Are you feeling so much better you can tell me a story today?” Gabrielle asked.
“I am,” she replied. “Which story would you like to hear?”
“The princess story,” she eagerly answered.
Her mother wasn’t surprised. Gabrielle always asked for the same story.
“There once was a princess who lived in a faraway land called St. Biel,” her mother began. “Her home was a magnificent white castle high on the top of a mountain. Her uncle was the king. He was very kind to the princess, and she was very happy.”
When her mother paused, Gabrielle blurted impatiently, “You’re the princess.”
“Gabrielle, you know that I am and that this story is about your father and me.”
“I know, but I like to hear you tell it.”
Her mother continued. “When the princess was of age, a bargain was struck with Baron Geoffrey of Wellingshire. The princess was to marry the baron and live with him in England.”
Because she knew that her daughter loved to hear about the wedding ceremony, the gowns, and the music, she went into great detail. The little girl clapped her hands with delight when she heard about the banquet feast, especially the description of the fruit tarts and honey cakes. By the end of the story, the mother’s narrative had become slow and labored. Exhaustion was catching up with her. The little girl took notice and, as was her ritual, she again made her mother promise she wouldn’t die today.
“I promise. Now it is your turn to tell me the story I taught you.”
“Every word just like you taught me, Mother? And just like your mother taught you?”
She smiled. “Every word. And you will remember it and tell your daughters one day so they will know of their family and St. Biel.”
Gabrielle grew solemn and closed her eyes to concentrate. She knew she must not forget a word of the story. This was her heritage, and her mother assured her that one day she would understand what that meant. She folded her hands in her lap and then opened her eyes again. Focusing on her mother’s encouraging smile, she began.
“Once upon a time in the year of the violent storms that tore in from the sea…”
E VERYONE WHO WAS ANYONE IN ENGLAND KNEW ABOUT THE feud. Baron Coswold of Axholm, one of King John’s closest advisers, and Baron Percy of Werke, also called friend and confidant by the king, had spent the last ten years trying to destroy each other. The competition between the two men was fierce. Each wanted more wealth than the other, more power, more prestige, and certainly more favoritism from the king. They fought bitterly over everything, and they coveted one prize most of all: Princess Gabrielle. At the mere mention of her name they became as rabid as mad dogs. Both barons were determined to marry this prized beauty.