Location: Carriage (Interior) (Morning)
I woke to a chorus of birds and the sounds of breakfast being prepared over an open fire.
Jacques was no longer on the floor of the carriage, but the blanket he slept under was now draped over me.
(More considerate behavior. I wonder what is going on behind that detached attitude of his?)
Location: Carriage/Campsite (Exterior) (Morning)
I ran a quick brush through her hair. There was no mirror, and I resigned myself to give my appearance no further thought for now.
(A look in a mirror would only fill me with despair I’m sure.)
Stepping from the carriage, I found Pierre at the fire as the other knights packed up the camp and fed the horses. Again, Jacques was absent.
Heroine “Is there something I might do?”
Pierre “I need more water for this porridge, Highness. There is a stream just beyond those trees.”
Henri “I shall go with – “
Heroine “No, thank you. I shall be fine.”
(I am uninterested in spending my morning deflecting Henri’s advances.)
I found the stream easily enough.
(The cool water feels good on my face.)
I had just dipped the bucket in the water when I heard a soft splashing noise from upstream. Turning, I saw Jacques a few yards away.
He had just emerged from the water, shaking his head to clear the damp strands of his long hair from his face.
He was shirtless and his torso was crisscrossed with a map of old scars. I could not restrain a gasp at the sight. He turned at the sound.
Jacques “You slipped into my room last night, and now you follow me to observe my morning ablutions? Highness, if I did not know better, I’d think you pursued me.”
(What?! Oh . . . he can’t seriously think — !)
Jacques “Your bucket, Highness.”
His small gesture directed my attention to the forgotten bucket, now floating downstream and picking up speed.
Heroine “I must have lost my grip when I – “
Jacques “When you fell under my spell? Never fear.”
He plunged into the stream. In a few quick strokes, he caught up with the bucket and returned it to my open hands. An odd expression came over his face as he did so.
Jacques “You should be careful with your things, m’lady. Not all that is lost can be so easily recovered.”
(What sadness there is in his voice, in his eyes . . . he carries scars within as well as without, it seems.)
Heroine “Your scars . . . ?”
Jacques face tightened. He turned away and walked out of the stream.
Jacques “Despite my vow of service to Your Highness, I believe I am still entitled to hold some aspects of myself in reserve.”
Heroine “Of course! I did not mean to pry, it is just that . . . “
Jacques turned and looked at me again. His eyes softened, even if the line of his jaw did not.
Jacques “Let me just say that achieving mastery of any martial skill entails much painful failure. Such lessons helped temper my once-reckless disposition.”
Before I could think of a reply, he turned again and, taking his tunic from the tree on which he’d hung them, walked into the woods.
Location: Carriage (Exterior) (Morning)
Over breakfast, the conversation turned to the route ahead. Jacques quickly lost interest and went to dig through his trunk of books.
Nicolas “Nicoisę, then? Or Jambonne?”
Henri “Are not the Red Rogues active in that region?”
Nicolas “Yes, they are. For that reason, I tend toward the route through Nicoisę, save for two reasons”
Pierre “Will that not entail braving The Maze?”
Nicolas “That is my first hesitation. Can anyone guess the second?”
He said it with a twinkle in his eye, as though hinting at some private joke between them. The other knights looked at each other in momentary confusion.
(A candle just ignited behind Alexandre’s eyes. Whatever Nicolas was hinting at, Alexandre knows.)
Alexandre “Bonlivre! By the stars, we’ll never get to the palace if we take Jacques there!”
The others all laughed.
(What is all this?)
[Please select one]
a) Ask about the route through Bonlivre.
b) Ask about the route through Jambonne.
c) Ask about The Maze.
Heroine “What is this about the route through Bonlivre?”
Henri “A pleasant enough town, Highness, but with a deadly trap for us that even exceeds the peril of the Red Rogues, the brigands of Jambonne!”
Jacques was apparently drawn in by the mere mention of Bonlivre.
Jacques “The finest university in Valois, Highness. And home to a legendary book emporium, Lugné’s Metropolis!”
(I have yet to see him as excited by any prospect as he is about this.)
Heroine “What is it about the route through Jambonne that raises your concern?”
Nicolas “The Red Rogues, Highness. Local bandits, but very persistent and well-organized. Lord Aramis, governor of the province, has had little luck suppressing them.”
(Jacques’s ears perked up earlier, and now he’s coming to join us. I have rarely seen him so impassioned.)
Jacques “We must go through Bonlivre. It is home to the finest university in Valois, and a legendary book emporium, Highness — Lugné’s Metropolis!”
Heroine “What is this Maze, Sir Nicolas?”
Nicolas “A forest, Highness. Nothing more. Less bandit-ridden than Riveaux.”
Pierre “Fewer bandits, perhaps, but – “
Jacques chose that moment to re-enter the conversation.
Jacques “Bonlivre!? It has the finest university in Valois, Highness, and a legendary book emporium — Lugné’s Metropolis! And it’s on the road to Nicoisę”
(I have not seen him so impassioned about anything since we met, and I admit I am intrigued by this Lugné’s Metropolis myself.)
Heroine “If I am to have a voice in this decision, I advocate for the route through Nicoisę . . . with a brief stop in Bonlivre, of course.”
(Jacques is beaming at me. The first expression of real joy I have yet seen on his face.)
Nicolas “In weighing all factors, I would agree with Her Highness. The route through Jambonne bears documented risk . . .
Nicolas “ . . . and Nicoisę, while not without danger, also holds certain benefits. We have allies there.”
Pierre “But there is The Maze to consider. We must pass through it if we journey to Nicoisę.”
Heroine “I would like some clarity on this ‘Maze,’ if you would, please.”
Nicolas “A treacherous, bramble-choked forest, Highness. It has a local reputation, but should prove no real obstacle – “
Pierre “It is a haunted wood, Sir Nicolas! Everyone knows this!”
Alexandre “Everyone has heard the stories, Pierre. Not all of us believe them.”
Henri “We are not children, cowering under the covers after our nannies have frightened us with old wives’ tales!”
Heroine “What stories are we speaking of?”
Pierre “There is a spirit who wanders those woods, Highness, seeking to fall upon unwary travelers!”
Jacques “If you are to tell it, Pierre, tell it aright! He is the spirit of Sir Giles Malefian, Highness , also known as the Winter Knight . . . “
Jacques “He fought in a long ago battle with those who once lived in the Maze, but was seduced by a woman of those forest people into betraying his lord . . . “
Jacques “Malefian sought to lure his lord into a trap, but a premonition caused the lord to hesitate and discover the ruse . . .”
Jacques “The woman, in turn, betrayed Sir Giles, slaying him when it was certain all was lost. His lord cursed the traitor to haunt the Maze until – “
Pierre “Until he found someone who could be fooled into taking his place! As I was about to say!”
Heroine “Yes . . . but Jacques said it so well that I felt gooseflesh, even on this bright spring morning.”
We all joined in a hearty laugh that almost succeeded in dispersing the eerie aftereffect of Jacques’s ghost tale.
Location: Carriage (Interior) (Afternoon)
Our journey continued without incident for most of the day. Jacques alternately read and slept in the carriage. I read when Jacques read and studied him when he slept.
(He’s an intriguing puzzle, this one. Obviously brilliant, but almost nothing outside his books seems to inspire passion or even interest in him.)
I nudged Jacques awake as they neared the Maze.
Jacques “Truly, Highness? It is just another forest, is it not? Not worth a loss of sleep, surely.”
Looking out the window of the carriage, my eyes widened at what I saw.
Princess “It is not like any other forest I have seen, Jacques. Look!”
The Maze towered ahead, the road vanishing into it as if into a dark mine. The mass of its moss-draped trees seemed ancient beyond description.
(A breath of menace drifts out from it, as though it sees us and wishes us ill!)
Jacques “You are shivering, Highness. Take my jacket.”
Heroine “Thank you . . . I . . .was fine and warm until I saw that forest.”
Jacques “It is a darksome place, but it is only a forest. Its reputation exceeds its reality, I am sure.”
Entering the Maze plunged our company into heavy dusk from brightest day. A gloom settled upon our spirits to match that of our surroundings.
The horses did not like it, nor did the knights. Our pace increased gradually as a silent consensus for haste emerged among them with which I wholly concurred.
Then came a terrible crash and thump. The carriage pitched into the air, veered off the road and tilted into a ditch.
Heroine “Oh! Jacques! What — ?!”
Jacques and I went set tumbling inside the carriage, but were unhurt. The same could not be said for the carriage itself.
Once it was clear no one suffered injury, Sir Nicolas surveyed the damage.
Location: Carriage (Exterior) (Day)
Nicolas “One wheel is shattered and the rear axle is cracked. Pierre, you are a wheelwright, are you not?”
Pierre “I am. Some of my tools are among our luggage. But I will need wood of a specific type and dimension to effect a repair.”
Nicolas “Describe what you need, then we four will search in teams while Jacques remains here with Her Highness.”
a) Agree that that sounds like a good plan.
b) Insist that you and Jacques search too.
c) Suggest abandoning the carriage and riding out.
Heroine “That sounds a good plan, Sir Nicolas. Much as I might wish to assist, I admit I have no skill as a woodsman and would only delay you.”
Jacques “We will look after horses, then, and await your return.”
Heroine “I insist that Jacques and I also participate, to maximize our efforts.”
Jacques “How are your skills as a woodsman, Highness? The Maze will challenge even those trained to navigate such places.”
Nicolas “In truth, Highness, there are already so many hazards in our journey . . . to add those that may not be necessary . . .”
Heroine “Fair enough. I will stay with Jacques.”
Heroine “We could simply ride the horses out, returning for the carriage at a later time . . . “
Jacques “And abandon my books?!”
Nicolas “Not my first concern, but we would have to abandon most of our supplies, a choice I am loath to make at this early stage of our journey.”
Alexandre “We have hours until dark, I am sure we can gather the materials and repair the carriage before that. And if we spend one night here – “
Pierre “I shall work like a demon to avoid that fate!”
Nicolas “It seems it is settled, then. Let us right the carriage, then set off.”
Using the horses and all of their own strength as well, the knights were able to pull the carriage free from the ditch and set its wheel-less corner upon a stump.
It was sweaty work and, in the process, all of the men save Jacques removed their tunics.
This gave me the opportunity to observe that none had scars as extensive as those born by Jacques.
(He is not the typical knight in this way either. Whatever his story, it is darker than he suggests.)
After a brief conference among the four explorers, Nicolas and Pierre set off to the West, while Henri and Alexandre forged East with promises to return by dusk.
Jacques built a small fire by the roadside. He and I sat down to wait and watch.
Location: Carriage (Exterior) (Evening)
Despite Sir Nicolas’s promise, dusk veered into night and still not one of the knights returned. The horses grew ever more restless as darkness encroached.
Jacques “I shall secure them to the carriage. We cannot afford them the chance to run off.”
Heroine “With this, at least, I can assist you.”
We worked together to secure the horses as Sir Jacques directed. All went well for the carriage team, Sir Nicolas’s stallion, and the mares shared by the others.
As the knight was preparing to tether Philippe, Sir Henri’s charger, with the rest, a blast of thunder struck. Philippe snorted in fear, slipped Jacques’s grip and ran.
Heroine “Philippe! Come back!”
The great horse did not heed. It ran up the road for a time before turning into the forest. Jacques stared after it in frustration.
Jacques “Wait here, Highness. Secure yourself in the carriage, and keep this . . . “
Jacques handed me his double-barreled pistol.
Jacques “. . . I shall find Philippe and return as soon as I may.”
Location: Carriage (Exterior) (Night)
With no other choice left to me, I waited. Dusk turned quickly to dark and, for a time, I busied herself collecting wood for the fire.
Just as I was about to huddle into the carriage and seek sleep I knew I would not find, I heard Jacques call to me from the woods.
Jacques “[USER_FIRST_NAME]! Come! Help!”
(He must be hurt! Or perhaps Philippe is injured!)
Heroine “I’m coming, Jacques!”
And with that, I took the pistol and a burning brand from the fire and plunged into the forest in the direction of Jacques’s voice.
Heroine “Where are you, Jacques?”
Jacques continued to call to me, always sounding close, but never getting closer.
(Surely he can see my torch! Why does he not simply come to me?)
And then a chilling thought struck me.
(What if the voice calling to me is not Jacques at all, but Sir Giles, the Winter Knight?)
Determining to turn back, I looked about. Relying as I had on Jacques’s voice to guide me, I had left no marks, noted no landmarks.
I was, I knew, well and truly lost in the dark, in the Maze.