Princess Adriana woke up in a strange place and she didn't know how she got there. She stood up and had to sit down again, as her legs seemed too week to support her weight.
After a few minutes of sitting she tried again ... yes, much better! There was no light in the room, but she could see by the moonlight coming through the wide gaps in the ill-fitting wooden shutters at the windows. Then she walked over to the door and tried to open it, but it was locked.
Just then he heard a noise outside: it sounded like footsteps getting nearer. She thought that it must be whoever it was that had locked her in, so she hurried back to the bed and lay down again, pretending that she was asleep. The door was unlocked and opened.
"Princess Adriana. Are you awake yet?" the male voice said. She didn't answer. "Oh, Damn! Then I'll just have to carry her again!" he said to himself.
"That won't be necessary," she said, in the bravest voice that she could muster, "Would you mind telling me who you are?"
"My name is Peter, but we really haven't got time for long explanations."
"I'm afraid I must insist! If not all, then something."
"Very well! But we have little time." He sat next to her on the bed. "I was walking by the cliffs earlier when I heard a car coming: there are no roads there, so I hid among the trees. The car stopped near me, it was one of those big, black cars the government uses. Well, when I say government, I mean your family. Two men got out: big men. One had long, black hair tied behind, the other was completely bald.
"They opened the trunk of the car and lifted something out: it was you, Princess! When they put you on the ground I heard the one with long hair say: 'Come on, let's get it over with!' But the other man said: "No, I can't harm her, I've known her since she was a baby.' Then the other said: 'But we must, if we don't she will have us killed; you know what the Queen is like!'
"Well, then the bald man said: 'It's no good: I can't do it! But if you try to hurt her, I swear I'll kill you myself, Kroeger! Turn the car around, I'll leave her near the edge of the cliff and let fate play it's hand!' The younger one walked to the car, and the bald one lifted you closer to the edge and said, 'Forgive me, My Princess!' Then they drove away. I picked you up and carried you here. I locked the door in case you woke up and wandered off, still under the influence of the drug they gave you. Do you understand now why we must get away from here: your stepmother, the Queen, wants you dead."
Peter threw some of his belongings onto the bed, then rolled them up in his blankets, before quickly tying both ends and slinging it over his shoulder. He had another bundle which he tucked under his arm.
"Come now, please! We'll have to go on foot and as far away as we can. If we can get deep into the forest, we can rest."
He didn't bother to lock the door of the simple cottage: he didn't expect that he would ever be coming back. They walked as fast as she could go, for as long as she could; although she had no idea how long that was.
"I think this will do," he said, eventually. Adriana slumped down on the ground and leant against a tree.
"I don't understand. I know my stepmother doesn't love me like my father did, and she is rather strict with me, but I never thought that she hated me, or wanted to harm me."
"Begging your pardon, Princess, but you've spent your whole life with privilege. The people loved your father, and your mother, while they were alive; but I doubt that anyone that knows the Queen can honestly say that ... except perhaps that half-brother of yours. And believe me, you wouldn't be the first person to disappear on her direct orders. She is clever: she knows that starving people isn't productive; but you don't have to be happy to work."
"But what am I to do, Peter, if I can't go home? Am I to live out my days living here in the forest?"
"No, Your Highness, you aren't safe anywhere in this country anymore. I haven't had long to act, but I think if we can get to the northern border I can get you across, and there is no love lost between our two nations. I can never come back, either. Perhaps in time we can get enough money to travel to one of the more enlightened distant lands; but I'm afraid that you must be prepared to leave Princess Adriana behind, perhaps for ever." The Princess smiled.
"All right, Peter. As far as the world is concerned from now on, Princess Adriana tumbled off that cliff into oblivion. You have obviously made some plans already, which I am eager to hear about, but I need a new name to go with my new identity. I was given several names at birth, one of which was Marie ... do you think that will do? And what is your other name, Peter; perhaps I can travel as your sister. But I wonder, Brother: do we have anything to eat?" He returned her smile.
"Yes, Marie is a good name. You shall be Marie Auberg: the only daughter of Willem and Frieda Auberg. My ... our ... parents are dead, so no one will be able to question them. As for food, I have bread and cheese and some cheap wine. We'll eat and then sleep, and then tomorrow I'll tell you the rest of my plan, such as it is."
After their simple meal, Peter untied his bedroll, removed his meagre belongings, then handed both the blankets to Adriana.
"No, Brother! You shall come and help to keep your Sister warm!" So huddled together under the blankets, they closed their eyes and tried to sleep.
The ground was hard but they had been warm and had slept for several hours. Adriana awoke to find him gone, but a small fire burned brightly several feet away. The carcase of a small animal was smoking over the fire, together with a small kettle. Peter returned carrying fuel. "Good morning ... Marie!"
"Yes, good morning, Brother Peter! Is it early?"
"The sun only rose about an hour ago. We'll eat, then we must proceed with our plans."
"All right ... but first I must ... er..."
"Very well, just don't go too far." When she returned he handed her some of the cooked meat served on a broad leaf.
" ... Mmm! It's good!" she exclaimed, "What is it?"
"A small deer: they grow barely bigger than hares. We can eat some now and save some for later. I have coffee, but nothing to put in it, and we'll have to share."
"So the plan," she said.
"Yes, the plan: I'm afraid we have to change the way you look. We will eventually be coming into contact with other people; and even if they don't recognise you, a well-dressed woman with fair hair and a pale complexion, travelling with someone who looks like me, is too unusual. We need you to be as anonymous as I am. I will have to change your hair and darken your skin. There are natural dyes I can use that won't wash off, but your new skin colour will fade in time, and your hair will grow out. I also need your clothes. I drained the deer's blood, and I'll put cuts in your clothes to make it look like you've been attacked and pour the blood over them. They may never be found, but if they should find their way back to the Royal Palace, it will hopefully add to the illusion that you are dead. So, Marie, I must respectfully ask you to take all your clothes off!"
" ... Even my underthings!"
"Yes, I'm afraid so! It will add authenticity if they are found with your dress, and people like us don't wear clothes like that."
"And my shoes?"
"Take them off so that we can stain your feet, but you can still wear them. If somebody robbed and killed you, I believe that they would take your shoes and any other valuables, and we can weather them to make them look older and cheaper. Do they have your name in them?"
"No, I don't think so."
"All right, then, I'll also cut some of your hair off; we can wrap it around twigs to help to dye your skin; I don't want to get it in my hands if I can help it. But leave your clothes on until I'm ready."
Marie didn't think that anyone except her nurse and her physician had ever seen her completely undressed before; but the thought of Peter seeing her was somehow more exciting than embarrassing! She had willingly placed her life in his hands, and now she was going to put her body there, too.
As he knelt on the ground, crushing and blending and adding water to the naturally occurring pigments, she took the time to really look at him for the first time. Really quite handsome, she thought; and he had surely saved her life and then looked after her the best way that he could. And when they had lain together last night, she had enjoyed his arms around her; the heat of their bodies so close together, and even his slightly earthy, masculine aroma. The men that she saw at court were young and dashing and they had good manners, but they were also aloof and 'unnatural' somehow, whereas there was no artifice with Peter.
"I'm ready to cut your hair now: I'm afraid that I only have a sharp knife." Marie stood like a statue as he took long hanks of hair in one hand, and as he then sliced through her beautiful golden tresses with his freshly sharpened hunting knife. Once upon a time she would have been truly horrified by his crude actions; but now she just stood calmly while he did what he had to do. Several thick handfuls of hair were then knotted around stout twigs to form basic brushes.
" ... It's time!" he said. As Marie removed a garment she handed it to Peter, who laid it carefully on the ground: unnecessarily carefully, you could say, considering what was about to happen to them! She stood, shivering to begin with, but then she felt the warm sun as it filtered through the trees and the gentle breeze on her pale skin. It is really quite nice, she thought.
"I'm sorry, Princess!" he exclaimed, "I'll be as quick as I can."
"It's all right, Peter; just do what it takes to get it done."
He had never been this close to a naked woman, so he was tentative to begin with: but he realised that the longer he took, the more uncomfortable she might be, so he became bolder.
Marie held her remaining hair up so that he could apply the weak-tea- coloured dye to her face and hairline; being careful not to apply too much so that it ran in streaks down her body. He felt awkward as he had to part her breasts so that he could cover her cleavage; then his eyes widened as her nipples hardened and stood out. The same was true when he reached her small, rounded bottom, with it's even deeper cleavage. As he moved round to the front and the tops of her thighs he paused: "Would you prefer to carry on, Marie?" She smiled serenely.
"No, you do it, Peter. You can see better than I."
Soon her whole body apart from her scalp was covered: even her palms and the soles of her feet. She then had to stand with her legs apart, and her arms raised, so that the air could thoroughly dry the dye on her skin.
"Your hair is going to be trickier," Peter said, "Do you want to get dressed while I do it?" Once again she smiled.
"No, press on! And would it help if you cut some more off?"
"Yes, probably. But I don't want to make you look like a boy!" Marie laughed.
" ... Do you really think that there's much chance of that happening, Peter!" He laughed himself.
"No, I don't suppose so!"
The hardest thing turned out to be applying the dye to her hair without getting it on himself: but he managed.
Peter had been able to obtain clothes such as those worn by most of the younger, rural, village women: a simple, durable, cotton smock-like dress and a cotton shift for underneath. Unfortunately, she would have to manage without underwear for the time being.
"I'd like to move on if we can," Peter said, once she was dressed, "Now that you look so different, perhaps we can get a ride north today or tomorrow. I think it would take too long to walk all the way, and I have no money for a bus or a train. If we stick to the forest I can always find food and water, but once we leave it, it will be better to move faster."
"So how far is to the northern border?" Marie asked him.
"Well those men ... do you know them, by the way: one of them seemed to know you ... brought you about twenty kilometres from the Capital, and I think the border is about 750 kilometres away from there. A truck travelling at a moderate speed, without stopping, would take about twelve hours to make the journey, but I doubt if they would do that. So at least two days just to get there, and then there's the waiting for the right opportunity to cross without the right papers."
"And have you considered how to do that, Peter?"
"Yes, but it's a question of timing. I have a cousin, Karl, who I've always been quite close to, and he is, or was, actually a border guard. I haven't seen him for a while, but he always told me: 'If you ever want to get across, I'll help you!'"
"Well, we shall just have to hope that he still does!" Marie said. "And those two men that you saw ... I knew right away who they were ... they are part of the palace guard. The bald one, is Sebastian Farik; and the other one is Radimir Kroeger. Farik was once my father's personal bodyguard and I think his friend. He has been in the Palace longer than the Queen, which is probably why she keeps him around. He may not like her, but she is the legitimate ruler ... her son is now the heir to the throne after her, but he is still a boy ... and a rather stupid boy at that! I was the heir until my father remarried, but now Queen Osmia's direct line have replaced me. I don't mind, I never wanted it, but I would have become Queen for my father's sake. Kroeger was someone that the Queen brought in: I have heard the rumours that he once shared her bed, but I have never seen any proof; and if that is what the Queen wants, that is her right.
"Personally, I have no desire to leave the forest, Peter: I feel safer in here with you than I would outside; and then there is the fact that as far as we know, the Queen thinks that I am already dead. But I have trusted your judgement so far, and I see no point in stopping now. So can I ask that we spend at least one more night in here, after travelling as far as we can get on foot today. What had you in mind: hitching a lift, or going somewhere that the drivers stop?"
" ... Hmm ... the latter of those two I think! Hitching is too hit and miss; and to be honest, I'm relying on the fact that you're a very attractive woman and truck drivers tend to be men. I will tell them that, as you said, you are my sister and we are travelling north to meet your future husband; and we will then have to hope that they are honourable, decent men who will want to help you."
They stopped after a couple of hours of walking, and then Peter made a fire and they had coffee and some more of the deer meat. A few more hours after that and the light started to fade, so they made camp for the night. Another fire, more coffee, and the last of the bread and cheese. They sat quietly talking and then it was under the blankets, while lying on a pile of leaves.
As they had camped near a shallow, slow-moving stream, so in the morning they refreshed themselves in the cold water, before finishing the remaining deer meat. Peter seemed to know which direction they were travelling in, just by reading the natural signs, so they walked until they found the road. Geographically, it ran north to south for practically the whole length of the country: it had been Marie's father's enduring legacy for his subjects. Although not dead straight, Peter knew that there were truck stops and filling stations at fairly regular intervals along it's length, and that if they walked along the road they would inevitably come to one. However, after they had been walking for some time, a vehicle pulled up just ahead of them.
"Would you like a lift to the next filling station?" the driver of pick-up truck asked them, "I turn off just past it; but if you're going further north, you can probably get another ride."
"That's what we thought," Peter said, "Thank you, Sir!"
"Are you and your wife going far?" the driver asked them.
"This is Marie, my sister, Sir! We are going north to meet her betrothed. We are orphans, and as well as becoming my brother, Erik has promised me a job on his farm. We have little money, so we are relying on good fortune and Christian charity to get us there; you seem to offer both, Sir!"
"Yes, times are hard. I wish I could do more for you," the driver said, "Look, if you're looking for a hot meal and a bed for the night, I can probably oblige!"
"That's very kind of you to offer, Sir, but we would like to push on further today if we can, so taking us as far as the filling station will be most appreciated." Marie was just a little sorry that Peter had declined the offer of a bed.
When they arrived, the man pulled in just before the fuel pumps. As Marie and Peter got out he pressed a few notes into Peter's hand.
"It's not much, but it will get you some food! Please take it ... I'll be offended if you refuse!"
"Then we thank you for your generosity, Sir!"
There were quite a few big trucks parked up: some with their own country's plates; others from neighbouring countries.
"It's too early to park for the night, so hopefully some of them might be travelling further north today," Peter said. "We'll buy something and sit at a table and see what happens; if nothing does, then I'll ask around."
The money that they'd just been given bought them two coffees, with milk, and a sandwich between them. Marie went to use the rest room and when she came back, Peter was in conversation with another man.
"This is Gregor, Sister, he says he's going north in a little while, but he has to stop for the night in a few hours. Marie smiled weakly, but she didn't like the way that this man was looking at her. "Thank you, Sir!" she said. "Not 'Sir'... 'Gregor'," he spoke, in a thick foreign accent, "We go north now, yes?"
Peter sensed that Marie felt uncomfortable, so he climbed up into the tall cabin first, before helping her up, too. They were grateful for the lift, but also that Gregor only spoke a few words of their language. The long silences were disconcerting, so it was a relief when he turned on what looked like a CD player and started to sing quietly along to music whose words they didn't understand. The big truck eventually pulled over to the side of the road.
"Gregor stop night. We go in morning," he said, slowly. Peter helped Marie down and handed her their things. "Thank you, Gregor!" he said, holding out his hand. Gregor took it and smiled. "No problem! Morning, yes?"
They had still been travelling through the forest that stretched for many miles, so they found some shelter just inside in case it rained. Snug under the blankets, she said:
"I don't like him: do we have to go with him tomorrow, Peter?"
"No, we don't have to; but we still have several hundred more kilometres to go. Suppose we go with him until he stops again, then wait for another lift."
"All right! We'll try that! Good night, Peter!"
Marie woke to find Peter gone and Gregor standing over her. "Where Brother?" he said. "I ... I don't know!" she replied. He crouched down in front of her and she instinctively pulled the blankets tighter around her. "You like Gregor? You want love?" He reached out and put a hand on her leg. "No, no love!" she exclaimed, fearfully. "You sure; Gregor make good love!"
Marie's body tensed up and stayed that way until she saw Peter, looking grim and walking purposefully towards her. He had obviously overheard the conversation.
"Gregor," Peter said, firmly, "I think you go now!" The truck driver shrugged his shoulders then walked away. The next thing they heard was the sound of the big diesel motor starting up, and then the air brakes being released with a loud hiss.
"Are you all right, Marie?" She nodded.
"It's for the best, Peter: I'd rather walk all the way than go through that again! Did you find anything for breakfast?" Peter held out a small rabbit.
"If we're stopping, we'd better not stay too near the road; we need to get a fire going and find some water, too."
"It's going to be warm again today," Marie said, " ... a pool or a nice stream would be nice! And as soon as we find somewhere, I'm going to take this dress off."
Once again Peter's extraordinary instincts, or perhaps his acute hearing and sense of smell, or maybe just his woodcraft, prevailed; because he led them to a place where a little water course flowed; the water picking up speed as it tumbled over rocks, as it slowly changed height in a shallow descent. Peter built a fire close to it, and while he expertly skinned and gutted the rabbit, and the water for their coffee boiled, Marie took of her shoes and stockings and slipped out of the dress; then she sat by the brook splashing water over her legs.
"Why can't life always be this simple!" she asserted.
"Mine was until I met you," he exclaimed, with a grin.
"I'm sorry for complicating it, Peter; but I'm so glad that it was you out walking that day. When we get across the border, I hope that you're going to keep on looking after me." He smiled.
"If you want me to!"
"You know what I am," Marie said, "but we don't know very much else about each other, do we; shall I start? We're both orphans, and I'm twenty-one years old next week. I know now that I really know nothing about life. I was brought up with the possibility of being a queen, but then when my father remarried, the only option that I had was to make a good marriage. My mother died when I was five and I barely remember her now. I've had a stepmother since I was eight, who I've just discovered ordered me killed: and I'm now wondering if my father really died of natural causes as we've always been led to believe."
"Come and eat!" Peter said. Marie walked barefoot across the soft grass. Peter watched the now wet and transparent shift that stuck in places to her legs and lower body. She sat beside him and he pulled lumps of charred flesh from the rabbit, which he gave to her. "Only one good meal here, I think: I'll have to look for something else for later.
"I am a few months older than you, Marie. I lived with my father and mother until I was sixteen, when they were killed in a freak accident: lightning struck the church tower and several people, including my parents, were killed by falling masonry.
"My father was a skilled craftsman ... a carpenter ... and I intended to join him; but after he died, all I could do was sell his tools for whatever I could get for them, which wasn't much. I had no other money and I couldn't pay the rent, so I went to live in the forest, where I chanced upon that old cottage where I took you, Marie. I've survived by living much as we have these past few days. There are people that I know in the town who will always buy a few rabbits or something a little bigger; or I'll do a days work so that I can afford a few luxuries, like coffee and wine, or your clothes. I wouldn't say that I've been exactly 'happy' with my life, but I think that I am quite 'content'!"