“Will a ring do? It’s small enough. It won’t be a hindrance.”
“No,” said the queen of the northern kingdom. “It must be something that won’t fall off in battle.” Her maidservant had brought a great many fine things into the chamber for consideration. Rings, diadems, collars. She did not know the queen’s purpose and therefore could not judge what article would be best suited for that purpose.
The northern queen moved to the table of arms. Weapons and armor could be damaged during battle, removed and tossed aside. Helms, shields, swords, lances, breastplates, greaves. The queen considered them all and she rejected them all. But when she reached the gauntlets, she lingered on them.
A glove would do, she thought. A glove for each, underneath the gauntlet.
She would present them as gifts to both her sons. A pair of traveling gloves for each. No one need know there was any importance to the gloves, other than a mother’s favor. A pair of fine gloves would be stitched for each prince. And one glove of each pair would be enchanted. The queen would teach them how to tell the difference.
There was to be war between the north and their sister kingdom in the south. Sister she had been once, but no more it seemed. Neither nation wanted war. Not the people. Not the leaders. But someone must have wanted it, for it came to pass. After five generations of peace, it was not a thing that the king and queen had foreseen.
And as it happened, the threat of war came when the sons of the northern throne were old enough to join it. The queen grieved and she raged. And then she put aside her grief and rage and plotted. Plotted for her kingdom and for herself. She would not lose both sons. King and country agreed that only one prince should go forth into battle with his father, so if both king and prince were lost, the kingdom would still have a ruler in the queen and an heir in the remaining prince. The one who stayed behind would become king. He would wed and produce an heir of his own. But the queen wanted both her sons safe. And she knew that both wanted to fight for their kingdom. She sought to make it so. Her wish and her sons’ wish.
The queen presented her gifts to both her sons, her twin sons. Later in her parlor, she told them of the enchantment. At great cost to herself and to her kingdom, the queen had found a spell that would bind the brothers in a way no two brothers had ever been bound. She found someone to cast the spell on the gloves. And for that spell to work, she had to use one of the irreplaceable treasures that her kingdom had held for hundreds of years, the seed of a plant that no longer bloomed in any realm on the earth. When each brother wore his enchanted glove, he would be able to switch places with his twin instantly. He would do so twice a day, once at dawn and once at dusk, the times when the boundaries of the world were thinner, thin enough to cross, thin enough that one could travel from one place to another leagues away with but a step, if one had the aid of a powerful enough enchantment.
“Mother,” her youngest son said. “This means…”
“Both of you foolish boys can go to war, as you wish. And both of you can come home, as I wish.”
With that, she embraced them, feeling at once proud and fearful.
Though they were twins, there was a succession. Aribald had come first into the world. And Zorald had followed. It was decided that the youngest was to be sent to battle with the king. The king knew of the traveling gloves. None other did, for few that would travel with them were able to tell the princes apart. Each prince had his strengths and weaknesses, lending an advantage to the army. If either Zorald or Aribald should be wounded or tired, he could switch with his brother. The queen would be able to tend to both as if she were in the field with them. She would be able to see both, as would the king. The brothers would share their duty, even though the youngest would gain the glory.
During the long march to the border between the northern and southern kingdoms, Zorald awoke early one morning and slipped on the enchanted glove, woven from black silk, gleaming a silver gleam, sending out a million invisible threads over the land all the way to its brother. Aribald must have been wearing that other glove, for Zorald found himself suddenly in the royal palace, in his brother’s chambers. It was a strange and unsettling feeling to be suddenly back home. But he went at once to find the queen and tell her that the spell had worked. And come the dusk, it worked again and Zorald was back on the march.
They fought in skirmishes before they even reached the front lines, for the southern kingdom sent its spies and its runners and its scouts. And they sent small parties to test the weaknesses in the northern army. The northern army did the same. It was in such a skirmish that Aribald, taking his turn in the field, became wounded from a stab to his arm. At the king’s insistence, he donned the silver-black glove and was transported that evening to the royal palace. And a ready Zorald was met by his father, who told him of his brother’s wound.
When the men of the northern army saw Zorald walking among them, swinging his supposedly wounded arm, and claiming the enemy had missed it, they were heartened. They reached the front lines and made their war camp and waited.
Zorald kept to the practice of wearing his glove every day. But he did not expect his brother to change places with him until Aribald’s arm was healed. So he was startled to find himself in his brother’s chambers one evening. A hot bath had been drawn but not used. Aribald must have arranged for it so that Zorald would not appear before the queen in travel-stained garb and mud-caked boots. Zorald was glad for the comfort of bath and bed, even though he felt guilty at the thought that the men of the northern army would sleep on hard pallets. Before he retired to bed, he brought the queen word from the borders.
The next morning, he was not transported to the camp. Nor that evening, nor the morning after. Zorald began to think that his elder brother meant to fight that campaign. He wondered if the king and queen too had always intended that Zorald remain behind and had not told him. He brought his concern to his mother, careful not to outright accuse the queen. The queen reminded Zorald that his brother was a better strategist and was likely staying in camp to advise the king. When it was time for battle, Zorald, who was the better fighter, would find himself back in the camp. Zorald thought he sensed an unease in his mother’s eye, but he bowed before her wisdom and returned to his brother’s chambers. He longed for his own bed and his own garb, but it would not do for the palace guard and the palace servants to see him there. He was, after all, pretending to be Aribald.
But it seemed the queen was right. The next morning, Zorald found himself back in the camp, in his own tent, lying on a warm but lumpy bedroll. He found a note in his brother’s hand. It was vague enough that it would be meaningless if found by another, but Zorald understood.
I trust you are perplexed and perhaps even angry. But I must return tonight. Then it is yours until you are spent or wounded.
Zorald wondered what his brother was up to. Perhaps it was a plan that he had hatched with their father. Zorald went to see the king. There were spies and envoys going back and forth across the line between the armies. The king was entertaining a diplomat when Zorald went to join him. Aribald had indeed given his father much advice based on the terrain and the known strengths and weaknesses of the southern army. But the king knew of no secret plan. He suggested only that Aribald wanted to return so he could feel useful. Neither prince was known for sitting still.
There seemed no urgent reason for Aribald to return. Zorald decided not to wear the glove that evening. He retired early, so he could wake before dawn and don the glove then. He wrote a note to his brother, asking what Aribald was doing.
Zorald was woken by a soft voice, a woman’s voice. He sat up, fearing that somehow he had donned the glove and was back in the palace and his mother was speaking to him. But then he saw the flaps of his tent. The flickering yellow light of campfires seeping through the cloth of the tent. A young woman knelt beside his pallet. She pushed back the hood of her cloak and smiled at him. Someone had likely sent him a camp follower, but he reached for his dagger nonetheless. She might be a spy or an assassin.
“You must be exhausted from a day of waiting for battle,” she said in a teasing lilt. From inside her hood, she produced a glass bottle full of what seemed to be oil. “Let me soothe away your cares.” She dropped her cloak to the ground and he saw that she wore a modest but lovely dress of pale blue and yellow. When she held up the bottle, he saw that her arm and shoulder were well-muscled. Her hair was pulled up behind her head, likely to make her look more like a medicine woman.
“The only soothing I need I will take from sleep,” Zorald said.
She laughed and there was joy in her eyes that seemed out of place in the war camp, until Zorald heard some soldiers outside singing a song and laughing raucously. There was no war yet.
“Are we playing that game then?” the woman said. “I promise I’ll be gentle with your arm.”
Zorald frowned, puzzled, until his sleepy mind realized what was happening. She thought he was Aribald. Zorald sighed. Aribald had found a lover. That was why he had stayed. Zorald suddenly wished he had heeded his brother’s request.
“Perhaps you can return tomorrow night,” he said.
The young woman’s smile faded. “Perhaps you can come to me if it’s so easy,” she said, an edge to her voice. And there was something else in her voice that Zorald could not place. A hint of a foreign accent.
She sighed. “Why now?”
Zorald frowned, as he always did when asked a question he had no answer to. It was his expression of thinking, but she took it to mean that he was displeased.
“I know you will say I’ve asked a thousand times and the answer is the same. It is now because someone wanted war. And we were unlucky enough to be born in separate kingdoms when that someone came along. We loved each other once, the north and the south. And we should love each other now, even as I love you and you love me. I love a good scrap too as much as the next girl, but war is another thing altogether. I don’t know it, but I fear it.”
Zorald had started at her proclamation of love, but he tried to keep his calm as he wondered who the young woman was. She was no medicine woman, no camp follower.
She sighed again and sat down on his pallet. And that was when she saw the knife in his hand. Her eyes grew wide and then she frowned, and she looked at Zorald. Unblinking, she gazed into his eyes and when she did finally blink, she leapt up off the pallet, they both knew that she knew.
Zorald gripped his knife tightly. She had claimed to love his brother, but so had many a lady who proved to be untrue.
A smile returned to her eyes, but not her lips. “He told me not to come tonight,” she said. “I thought he feared for my safety, but now I see the true reason.”
“How did you get past the guards? Who are you?”
She laughed. “Do not berate yourself, little brother. I am adept at moving about quietly. But it seems I am not the only one who brought enchantments to the battle. Ari did not tell me about this. You and he have switched places somehow. Ah, that is why it seemed that blow that struck his arm had vanished. We knew there was something amiss.” She looked at the knife in his hand. “I would not harm you. I have loved your brother for a long while now, and hoped to call you my brother someday, even though you gave me this scar.” She turned her right arm so he could see the tiny crescent-shaped scars on the inside of her forearm.
Zorald’s frown melted and his eyes widened. “Princess Ida.”
Ida, firstborn and heir to the southern kingdom. Ida and Aribald had been promised to each other as children, to further unite the kingdoms of south and north. They had met on many occasions, the first was when they both were mere toddlers and Ida stole Aribald’s toy train car. The next time when they were small children, and Aribald pulled out all of Ida’s braids and tied them up in knots. Again and again at ceremonial functions and balls and diplomatic visits. It was not expected that they would love each other, only that they would marry and like each other well enough to produce heirs whose blood would forever bind north and south.
Never had Aribald spoken of loving Ida. He had told Zorald of all the others, but never of Ida. That alone made Zorald wonder…
“Why would you tell me who you are? I could call the guards right now and hold you hostage. Your father would dare not attack.”
“We were not meant to be enemies,” Ida said. “I think someone in my kingdom may have betrayed father as he grieved for the death of his queen. My mother passed two years ago and since that time, some advisor has been poisoning my father’s mind with talk of war. I think I may know who, but it doesn’t matter. Your brother and I have been speaking about a way we might end this war before it even truly begins. Some may lament and rage, but most of the soldiers and warriors would likely welcome another march, if it meant marching home. We will wed each other in secret and then declare our union before all. As we are the firstborn and heirs of our respective kingdoms, it would force the kingdoms to be at peace with each other.”
Zorald was shocked. Of all the strategies to end the war that his brother might have devised, this was one that Zorald had not foreseen.
“Your plan is flawed, highness,” Zorald said. “If only because, as you yourself said, ‘someone wants this war.’ And they have brought us this far. So until we find and stop that someone or someones, then I am afraid no amount of wedlock between our two nations will stop war.”
Ida shocked him again as she moved soundlessly toward a bundle in the corner and began to undo it. Inside was armor, the armor of the north. She began to don it. The people of the north were still unaccustomed to women in the garb of men and warriors. Yet she did not seem out of place in the armor. It was marked with the sigil of a bird’s wing, fitting for she moved as silently as the falling of a feather. Despite his caution, he turned away when she undid her skirt, for she had tight-fitting pantaloons beneath. Even as he wiped away the sweat of embarrassment from his brow, Zorald could not help but to think that his mother would like the girl. And despite his suspicion about her and about his own brother, he liked her too, though he had not seen her for many a year. For Aribald’s sake, he let her leave the camp.
Zorald left a note for his brother before he donned the glove and traded places. And when he returned to the palace, he told the queen of all that had transpired, for he did not trust his own judgment.
The queen too was suspicious of Ida. It distressed her that Aribald had told no one of his plan, even his twin. Zorald was ever-loyal to his kingdom, his country. Had he been younger, he might have seen Aribald’s love for the princess as consorting with the enemy. He was old enough to know now that all in the world was not black or white, night or day. Aribald sometimes failed to see the changes in his brother. Or perhaps, he was just trying to protect his family. If the princess could be trusted, and if they acted quickly, then the plan might work. The queen agreed to the union. If she distrusted the princess, after spending a day with her, she would send Ida back to the camp.
Zorald and Aribald switched places again that evening. Aribald had left a short note with only four words.
Forgive me. Trust her.
There was a drawing on the paper. A symbol that only Zorald would understand, for it was a language that he and his brother had invented when they were children to pass notes along to each other insulting their tutors without the tutors knowing what was written. The drawing specified a meeting place and time.
Before setting forth, Zorald saw his father. Aribald had found the king and told him all. The king seemed unconvinced that a marriage between the royals of the two realms would stop the war. He feared that if Princess Ida were found inside their palace walls, willingly or not, it might incite the southern kingdom even more. He did not forbid the plan, but nor did he give his blessing. He bade Zorald to find a way to bring his brother and sister-to-be to the camp after they wed, so that the southern king could see them, and see that his daughter was safe.
Zorald took his father’s counsel with him when he went to the meeting place to meet, he could only guess, with Ida. Two of his personal guards insisted on coming with him. He could not deny their protection. It would have been foolish to do so. But he had to find some way to convince them to let him be alone for a few moments. When the blow to his back came, Zorald feared that he had been led into a trap. And he was right.
As he lay on the ground, trying to right himself, as he fought against the ringing pain and dizziness, he saw his guards standing above him. One of them had tears running down his face as he held a sword out toward his prince. The other had his sword raised above Zorald. So did he stand when an arrow came bursting from the front of his throat. He collapsed to the ground.
Zorald scrambled backward and found his feet. He saw a knight bearing toward them, wearing silver armor with the sigil of a bird’s wing. The knight gave a cry that sounded like the screech of a hawk and bore down on the second guard, who dropped his sword and dropped to his knees, begging mercy with his hands over his head.
Ida lifted her helm so she could speak. But she kept her sword trained on the weeping man. Through his tears, he spoke and told them that one of the southern kingdom’s advisors had bribed Zorald’s personal guards to assassinate him and then claim it was the southern king who gave them the order. The guard that Ida killed had been paid in coin. The one who had dropped his sword had been blackmailed, his family taken hostage. They bound the still-weeping man. Zorald promised punishment, but he also promised to find and free his family if they could.
“It’s Goh,” Ida said, “our advisor at arms. I have proof but none that would stop him. He is powerful and feared. My proof would be ignored. He stands to profit well from this war. He has always been a slippery one. Now he is a treasonous one. If they had succeeded in killing you, the bloodshed would never end between our realms.”
“Then we must end it,” Zorald said. “We must assure that you and my brother wed as soon as possible, so word can spread and reach the camps before this Goh or someone else tries again. He might try to kill you next, or our fathers.”
“You have a scheme in mind, don’t you?”
Zorald lifted his silver-black glove. “This is how we have managed it and you must keep our secret if you truly love us. When you wear this glove at dawn, you will trade places with the wearer of its twin, my brother. You will appear in our palace, in my brother’s chamber, where my mother, the queen, awaits you. You must give her the glove. She will keep you hidden in Ari’s chambers until dusk. Then she will don the glove and Ari will don his. They will trade places—”
“And Ari will be with me in your royal palace!”
Zorald nodded. “You will be left without the protection of the queen, but she has arranged for the two of you to be wed. Once you are wed, Ari will bring you out to show that you are there, and you will, I hope, declare that you are a princess of our realm, not our hostage. It will take some time for the pigeons you dispatch to reach our camps. I will do my best to stave off war until then.”
He held the glove out to her. Ida reached for it, but then she hesitated and looked at him. “We will be safe in your palace. But you and your mother and your father and my father will be out here in the midst of armies and assassins. What if it doesn’t work? What if our union only angers the people? What if your people hate me?”
“If they must hate someone, then we must assure they hate the right someone.”
“Goh? How? My father believes me, but he has been weakened and the council will turn against him if Advisor Goh cows them.”
“If this Goh is too clever for you to uncover his treachery before all, then you must find a way for your council to see your father as strong and capable, strong enough to keep Goh under control.”
Ida thought for a few moments and she turned the silver-black glove over in her hands. “I have an idea, but you won’t like it, little brother.”
Princess Ida came to her father in his tent. He had been stooped, not with age but with grief, for so long, that she was startled by his posture. He was standing up straight and pacing in his tent. He met her warmly and admonished her for wearing her armor and going forth. She was tall and strong but had not the brute strength of the other lady knights and women warriors in their ranks. He told her that he meant to put an end to the war by denouncing Goh and sending word to the northern kingdom that he wished for a truce. Ida was at once astonished, afraid for her father, and proud of her king.
She told him about Goh’s attempt to kill Zorald. She told him about the plan to end the war with wedlock. She told him such an innocent plan would not work so long as such a wicked and powerful man as Goh stood in the way. At last, she told her father of the new plan that she and her brother-to-be had devised.
As the dawn struck that day, Ida vanished from her father’s sight and in her place stood the eldest royal son of the northern kingdom. The southern king spoke to the prince. And the southern king brought the prince before the members of the royal council who had come to the camps. Goh was among them. He saw the hostage that the king had taken. He heard, along with the others, the king’s words, how he had sent his own daughter to be a willing hostage to the northern kingdom. The southern king warned the council that if any harm were to come to Prince Aribald, and if the north retaliated by harming his daughter, it would not be that northern kingdom that he would blame. It would not be the northern kingdom that he hunted and warred against. He would hold the royal council responsible. Every last one, even those not present. If his daughter were to vanish from his sight forever, so too would they vanish nor just from his sight but from the sight of the world.
Into the chamber came the southern king’s guards, and unbeknownst to all, Aribald was not truly shackled. For the southern king was his father-to-be, and he would protect the king even as the king would protect him from any treachery in the chamber.
Word was sent forth from both kingdoms. War was averted and a truce reached. The kings ordered their troops to return to their homes, all but a few. The few remained for the northern kingdom had sent their royal hostage and their queen to the borders. No longer a front line for a war, but a meeting place for something else, a wedding. It was humble, for a royal wedding. There was a feast and dancing and fine clothes and jewelry. The men and women of each kingdom’s court traveled to the field. There were to be two more weddings. One held in the southern kingdom’s palace, the other in the northern kingdom’s palace, for Ida was a northern princess after that. And Zorald, as his gift to his new sister, returned to the southern kingdom and helped the king to keep watch over the scheming advisor who had brought two sister kingdoms to the brink of war.
Though war was averted on that occasion, both kingdoms knew that they must remain vigilant. Both knew they must remain allies. In time, the story of the traveling gloves was told and it spread. One glove remained with the northern kingdom. The other remained with the southern kingdom. Ever could one man or woman travel from each kingdom into the other for good or ill. It was a sign of good faith, a sign that the kingdoms would watch over each other, a reminder that though the kingdoms were leagues apart, they were also only a step away.
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.