It was all a blur. One minute she was surrounded by ladies-in-waiting, the next she was flying through the countryside in a tiny carriage alone with her baby daughter and a single canvas bag containing almost nothing.
She could still hardly believe what the king had told her. Anack had invaded the south and had plans to assassinate her daughter, and all because of rumours about an arranged marriage with the Chunock’s. It was complete nonsense. There wasn’t even the slightest possibility she’d let her daughter marry a Chunock. Not after what they’d done to her father and his kingdom.
The time in the carriage was the worst in the queen’s life. The drivers refused to stop, even when ordered. All she had to eat was what she was given – tough bread and weak ale. Fortunately she provided all the nourishment that Jasmine needed. They continued through night and day, only stopping in remote spots to get some relief.
She was about to insist on a break when the carriage stopped in front of a small cottage. She eased herself out with Jasmine still sleeping in her arms.
“I’ll ask for water,” said the queen.
The drivers tipped their hats in acknowledgement, turned a slow circle and sped off.
“Wait,” shouted the queen.
They did not, and were soon lost to sight.
The queen knocked on the door. There was no reply. She knocked again and called out. Jasmine woke and added her own call.
For many minutes the queen stood not knowing what to do. It was Jasmine’s cries that forced her to act. Her bag was still in the carriage and she didn’t know when the driver would return. He might be gone hours. She needed to find the woman of the house and get her to clean Jasmine and make dinner for the queen.
She tried the door and found it open. There was still no reply to her call. She went in and sat in a chair near the cold fireplace.
“What as we going to do?”
Jasmine’s only answer was to cry louder.
The queen waited in the chair for several hours. As darkness began to fall there was no sign of the cottagers or the carriage. The queen felt a pang of jealousy as she looked at her daughter who was well fed, warmly wrapped up and sleeping like the baby she was.
“This will not do,” said the queen. “Who will serve me?”
In the kitchen was a large basket of food with a pitcher of fresh water next to it. She found a cup and served herself.
The house was getting colder. There were logs and twigs ready by the fireplace and a tinder box with flint and steel on the mantelpiece. She had seen servants light fires. It was harder than she thought but eventually she managed to get a flame and coax a fire into life.
The warmth sent her to sleep. She woke in time to save the fire from going out. Jasmine woke hungry. Feeding her reminded the queen of her own hunger. She carried Jasmine into the kitchen and lifted everything out of the basket. There were apples and pears, some cooked meat and some bread.
She ate quickly without even bothering to find a finger washing bowl or drying cloth. She even tried some of the uncooked pear and found it palatable enough. When she had finished she poured water over her hands and wiped them on her dress. She then took Jasmine upstairs and climbed into bed.
Three days passed. The queen improved her fire lighting skills but was unable to keep the fire going throughout the night. She had finished all the meat and drink.
“Well Jasmine, if we don’t find someone today I’ll not have anything to eat. And then what are we going to do. I can’t feed you if I can’t feed myself.”
The sun was shining as she carried Jasmine along the track. She walked for several hours without seeing a turning let alone a house. When the sun reached its high point she stopped and shouted. There was no reply so she turned and started the long walk back, finally accepting that no help was coming. The carriage driver must have been in the pay of the Anacks, the cottagers had probably been killed and she had been left to die of starvation.
She wasn’t having it.
Her priority was food and water. In the kitchen she found a few herbs, outside she uncovered an overgrown garden and a well. She pulled several plants up and was delighted to see purple carrots and what she hoped was a leek. The stew was watery but it felt good to have a full tummy again.
Days turned into weeks. At sunrise the Queen would search the garden and explore the woods nearby. The only animal she had managed to catch was a hedgehog and she let it go because she couldn’t work out how to cook it.
Once she had foraged enough food for the day she would walk the track until midday. She pushed an ash pole into the ground to mark the end of her walk. Each day she’d pull it out and take it a little further. She thought she went further because she was starting earlier. She didn’t realise it was because she was getting stronger.
Weeks turned into months and months into years. Jasmine learned to walk and soon afterwards began to hunt for herself. She moved through the forest in near silence, shot arrows while running and seemed to find nests, eggs and animals wherever she went.
In the dark nights the queen would tell Jasmine about their kingdom and the king. Jasmine wanted to know why the king didn’t rescue them. It was several years before she realised her mother believed the king was dead and his kingdom taken by the Anacks.
The queen dreamt of returning to society and tried to teach Jasmine everything she knew about court matters, etiquette and princes. Jasmine would hardly listen. She saw no point in learning about things that were not useful.
One day the queen was grinding acorns when Jasmine burst into the cottage.
“There’s people swimming in the beaver’s pond.”
“People. What sort of people?”
“Men I think.”
“What were they wearing?”
Jasmine blushed, “They weren’t wearing anything.”
“Did they have no clothes?”
“They left their clothes on the willow tree.”
“What were they like?”
As soon as the queen heard the description she carefully doused the fire and put the beam across to bar the door.
“Those are Anack soldiers. We must stay hidden.”
Keeping Jasmine confined in the house was not easy and after just one day became impossible. The queen realised it was time to leave their hiding place.
The next day was spent cooking every scrap of food in the house. She wrapped the meat in dock leaves and packed it into their deer hide bags. Jasmine was kept busy filling water skins and harvesting in the garden.
They left the cottage before sunrise and walked along the familiar track. Even heavily laden they passed the ash pole before mid-morning. They walked all day with seeing any sign of people.
“Tell me about the kingdom and the court,” said Jasmine when they finally stopped.
The queen hesitated, remembering all that she had lost, but once she started talking found herself caught up in wonderful memories. Gradually she became aware that Jasmine had fallen asleep.
On their second day they turned onto a track that was clearly well used. After another two days the queen began to think the track was used less than it appeared to be.
“Smoke,” said Jasmine.
A simple cottage huddled next to a bridge where the track crossed a stream. Their packs were so light that the queen decided to seek out the peasants and get service from them.
As they approached the doorway the queen suddenly realised they didn’t look like a queen and a princess, but poor peasants without even clogs for their feet. Tears came to her eyes and perhaps that was why the cottager took pity on them, shared her own meal and allowed them to sleep near the hearth.
In the morning the cottager was repaid. Jasmine had been hunting before sunrise and returned with two rabbits. The queen had filled the log basket from the store, replenished the kitchen water bucket and had the rabbits cleaned and cooking on the fire.
The queen quizzed the cottager while they ate but found little comfort in the answers. It seemed that the kingdom was now allied with Anack but the cottager knew nothing of the king.
Each day the queen and Jasmine encountered more homes and peasants. They never went short of a place to sleep or food to eat and never failed to repay the kindness with hard work.
After a week they came to a much larger village that the Queen knew was less than a day’s ride from the capital. They found work at the inn caring for the animals and sleeping in the barn. It was the perfect place to gather news but Jasmine wished with all her heart that they were back in the cottage that had been their safe haven for so many years. She’d seen moments of sadness in her mother before but had never seen despair.
One morning Jasmine woke to find her mother gone. She asked at the inn but no one had seen her. If they’d been back in the woods she would have been able to track her but here there were too many people and too many tracks. Jasmine waited anxiously.
“Mother, where have you been?”
“Come gather up our things, we are leaving.”
“Are we going back to the cottage in the woods?”
“No. We are going to fight to get back what is rightfully yours.”
Jasmine had seen her mother like this before. It was the same look she wore when she cracked the ice on the well, the same look that shifted logs that weighed more than she did, that dug traps through solid ground, diverted streams, stretched skins and stitched bags. It was a look that would not accept defeat.
They walked for half a day to a manor house that belonged to the queen’s cousin. The house was just outside the walls of the capital city.
One minute Jasmine had been a peasant girl at ease in the woods. The next she was in the grand manor house, washed in warm water, confined in clothes that restricted her in every way, served by girls older than herself who would never leave her on her own, and eating food that looked nothing like the ingredients it was made from. There was also so much noise. So many voices, discussions, plans and arguments.
Jasmine needed space to think, space to breath, space to be herself. That night she silently slipped out of the window, wearing her own clothes and with her own hunting gear. She easily passed the guard protecting the manor house and the many guards patrolling the city walls.
It was her first time in the city itself and it oppressed her, until she realised it was just a forest of houses, and she was always at home in a forest.
Jasmine spent the day stalking. She listened to soldiers, shopkeepers, maids, lords and ladies but no one said anything important. There was one moment when a man started to say something about the empress of Anack but his wife grabbed his arm and talked loudly about the weather.
Jasmine needed more information. She needed to go to the heart of the city; to the palace itself.
The palace was surrounded by a high wall that could not be climbed but Jasmine soon found a way through the gate. She crawled underneath a carriage full of vegetables and clutched to the underside while it carried her into the palace grounds. A man unloaded the food into the animal feeds. Jasmine couldn’t believe the vegetables were for animals.
It was easy enough to cross the internal gardens and even easier to climb the palace itself as it was covered in decorative features that made perfect hand holds. If she’d been wearing court clothes she wouldn’t have been able to squeeze inside through the third floor window.
The palace was not Jasmine’s natural hunting ground. She was spotted by serving girls but none of them raised the alarm. She almost collided with one maid, who covered her eyes and muttered something that sounded like she was wishing Jasmine success in her mission.
After an hour of searching, Jasmine found what she was looking for. A door guarded by two stout soldiers in full dress uniform. Her mother was right to focus on clothes. Jasmine knew from the colours and the insignia that these were the king’s own guards.
Jasmine could easily have shot both guards with her bow, but she had no quarrel with them. Instead she found a window and climbed to the king’s suite from the outside. The bedroom was empty, as was the neighbouring room. Jasmine looked around wondering why guards would stand by the door to an empty room.
A noise caused her to turn. A panel in the wall slid open and out stepped a man, who must be the king himself. Both of them were shocked. Jasmine recovered first and had an arrow pointed at the king before he could say anything.
“I’ve come to rescue you,” said Jasmine.
“What?” spluttered the king.
“To rescue you from the Anacks.”
The king laughed.
“My dear little girl, it is you who will need rescuing. Guar…”
Jasmine shot. She’d judged it perfectly. It sliced into the king’s ample clothing, just missing his ample belly and cutting off any further words from his mouth.
“I have come from the queen. Your queen.”
The king encouraged Jasmine to tell him more but she didn’t entirely trust this man even though he was her father. She didn’t tell him where the queen was and did not reveal her own identity.
The king was too large to climb out of the window so wrote a short note for Jasmine to pass on to the Queen so that they could plan his escape.
Jasmine climbed out of the window and started to descend but as soon as the king stopped watching she quickly climbed back up and into the king’s bedroom.
The king was shouting loudly and angrily. She heard every word, and each one was like a hammer blow to her heart. He demanded to know from his chief spy how the queen had survived? She was supposed to have died in the forest. How were his orders not obeyed?
The empress of Anack arrived and told the king what to do. When the messenger returned they should send a reply. Her own guards would then follow the messenger girl and kill queen and her daughter so that their son would be the only heir to the throne.
“Where is our son?” said the king.
“He’s hunting,” said the queen.
“Send for him immediately. He needs to be kept safe.”
Jasmine climbed down to the courtyard and walked boldly through the gate. The gate guards looked suspiciously at her but their job was to stop people going in, not out.
Jasmine watched a guard ride out and followed him through the city but once in the countryside she was soon left behind. It didn’t matter. She knew she was on the right track and all she had to do was to wait.
A column of horses came noisily towards her. Jasmine stood in the centre of the track and used her mother’s most commanding voice to demand that they stop.
“I have a message from the king for the prince,” said Jasmine.
She knew every word of the message. It was perfect for what she needed, as long as it wasn’t too strange for the king to address his son as my darling.
The note had an immediate affect and Jasmine was soon riding a horse with the prince and his squire while all the other guards returned to the palace. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of her life. She couldn’t believe how quickly they moved along the track. They rode for an hour and Jasmine was glad when they stopped at an inn. Riding caused muscles to ache in places they never had before.
Servants took their horses. The squire led them inside where he started making arrangements for the royal visitor.
Jasmine whispered to the prince.
“We have to escape.”
“Already too many people know where you are. Your father said stay hidden and only trust the messenger girl. That’s me. When it gets dark we will slip away.”
Jasmine and the prince trekked through the forest to the manor house where they needed to enter without him being recognised. The forest provided the solution. Mud and moss transformed the prince’s clothing and a quick hunt yielded a small wild pig.
“Pig for the cook,” said Jasmine and led the prince in through the kitchen. When they entered the ladies parlour the queen jumped up and hugged Jasmine. The other ladies shrank back repelled by the clothes.
Jasmine introduced the prince. Immediately the queen summoned servants to bathe, clothe and feed the boy. Once he was safely restored to courtly ways, the queen called her cousin so that they could make plans.
“I think,” said the queen, “it is time I paid the king a visit and reminded him who I am. Prepare for battle.”
Jasmine expected swords to be sharpened and arrows fletched. Instead preparations involved multiple baths, immense quantities of clothes, a new carriage and horses, the recruitment of copious servants and visits by a catalogue of dignitaries.
It was two days before everything was ready. The city was awash with rumours, some of which were very close to the truth.
On the day of the battle, Jasmine was dressed more finely than ever before. She accompanied her mother to the carriage which was led by a procession into the city and on to the palace.
“Where is my boy?” said the king.
“My dear husband, are you not going to embrace your daughter, your first born and heir to your kingdom?”
The king looked at Jasmine without recognising her as the messenger girl.
The queen turned to the empress. “You, mistress, must be the queen of Anack. How good of you to provide comfort to my husband in my absence. Now I have returned you may leave. Guards see to it that the queen’s things are packed and escort her out to depart immediately.
“How dare you woman,” said the empress. “Guards. Arrest her.”
The empress’s orders were not obeyed. Part of the queen’s preparations had been to send secret messages to the chief spy. The messages falsely said that the empress had planned to kill the king and install their son on the throne. Consequently all the guards in the room were loyal to the king and none had any liking for the empress. Being loyal to the king also meant being loyal to the queen and therefore her orders were promptly obeyed.
She quickly issued further orders. The most surprising one was to arrest the king’s chief spy for colluding with the empress. The king was so dazed that he didn’t even think of countermanding her.
Jasmine used the confusion as cover to sneak away. She accosted a servant to release her from the court clothes. The servant was surprised that under the finery Jasmine wore her hunting gear. She was even more surprised when Jasmine left by the window rather than the door.
Jasmine found what she was looking for and waited. She was good at waiting and good at remaining concealed.
The empress entered her royal carriage along with three of her ladies-in-waiting.
“You are not really running away are you?” said one of the ladies.
Jasmine heard the slap as the empress struck her.
“How dare you insult me? This kingdom will be mine even if I have to fight with troops to win it. Damn that woman. Damn that man, can’t he do anything right.”
“What about your son? They have him hostage.”
The empress laughed.
“They think that will stop me. That’s their weakness.”
She laughed again.
“Let them have the boy. He was only a puppet anyway. No this is better. No pretence. I will invade and they shall fall.”
Jasmine emerged from the treasure box at the back of the carriage. She grabbed the empress by the hair and held a hunting knife against her neck.
“You may not value your son’s life but what about your own?” said Jasmine. “Send these ladies away. Then tell the drivers to take the road to the right.”
The empress did as she was told.
It was a long and difficult journey. Jasmine had to remain awake and alert to ensure the empress did not escape the carriage. The drivers were so scared of the empress’s anger that they didn’t stop for days until they reached the cottage.
“You are lucky”, said Jasmine. “You’ll find this home much more comfortable than it was when my mother and I first arrived. Now get out and order your drivers to return to the palace.”
The empress again did as she was told.
Jasmine waited until they were out of sight before banging on the roof. The drivers were surprised to see her but welcomed her company. They stopped at the first cottage and enjoyed hospitality and rest. This time Jasmine’s repayment was not in rabbits but gold coins from the treasure box in the carriage.
Jasmine was gone almost a week. The queen was distraught but kept reassuring herself that Jasmine could look after herself.
Jasmine snuck into the palace and arranged for servants to quickly bathe and dress her before her presence was known. She then entered the royal chambers and was announced as if she had just risen from sleep. The queen ignored courtly protocol and hugged her.
Fairytales often end with everyone living happily ever after. This one was no different. The queen took charge in the kingdom and made it clear that Jasmine would rule after her. Many princes came to court Jasmine but she always contrived to lose them while promenading in the woods. She would not even consider marrying, unless they found their own way back to the palace before she did. She was happy that none of them had.
The king was sent with his son to Anack where the boy was crowned. As he was so young it was expected that the king would act as regent, but somehow the queen was regent even though she never set foot in Anack. The king was reduced to being a father rather than a ruler, and discovered that this was a role that he delighted in.
Jasmine only ever half succumbed to courtly ways. The servants all knew not to remove the shabby hunting clothes and checked them every morning to see if they needed cleaning. It was surprising how often dirt would manage to climb up to the third floor, scrape across the floor from the window and cling to the hunting clothes hanging in the princess’s room.
As for the empress, no one knows what happened to her. When some foresters chanced upon the lodge they found it empty with a thick layer of dust on every surface.