The Princess returned to her room to find Melissa sweeping the floor with a long handled besom.
"Welcome back, my sweet,” the maid said. “I had not expected you to return so soon. Come, sit on the bed while I finish my sweeping. Does all go well with you today? How is the King?"
"No Melissa, today has been an ill day," she replied. The Princess vainly tried to smile but the effort was too great. "My father and I are estranged, perhaps forever. I have tried to find it in my heart to forgive him but I cannot. My mother will not let me. I must leave today. I cannot stay, not here. It is all too painful." The maid laid down her besom and wrapped her arm around the Princess' shoulder.
"You must, as we all must, do what you deem is best," she said. "But one so young should not be bereft of both parents, even though only one is truly dead. Can you not find some forgiveness in your heart for our King? He has an onerous task and he has need of your support and your love." The Princess started to weep.
"I have tried, really, I have tried. It will not come," she sobbed. "It will not come! No, I must be away! Perhaps elsewhere I will find some contentment, some peace. Perhaps in time, the pain will lessen?" She paused. "No, I think not. I am sorry that our time together has been so brief, Melissa. I so see my grandmother behind your eyes and I would have liked to see more of her. I have missed her wise counsel these past days but, alas, I shall be gone in little more than hours." She sobbed again, her body shaking. "Come for a visit when you are able,” she continued through her tears, placing her arms around the maid. “If you wish me to pass word to the overseer, I will. I am, after all, still a Princess and I have some rank here. A sojourn in our little village would suit you well, I think. I will leave directions so that you may find my humble dwelling.
"It is doubtless a long way to go and my frail, old body will stand the rigours of travel much less than yours, my lady," the maid replied, a glimmer of a smile across her lips. "And alone? In these troubled times? No, it will be pleasure enough to dream, I think." Melissa wiped the Princess' tears from her cheeks with her forefinger. "Come, my sweet. If you are to be away a-horseback, such finery as you wear now will be ill suited to the journey. Wash and change, while I finish my cleaning; though of little use will it be now."
The Princess washed and changed into the garb in which she had arrived while Melissa finished her final sweepings. When the Princess was satisfied with her attire, she walked across to Melissa and wrapped her arms around her so tightly that Melissa gasped.
"I shall miss you, Melissa," the Princess said.
"And I you, little one," Melissa replied. They both laughed at the self same memory.
"Must we always repeat ourselves?" the Princess asked.
"It would seem so," Melissa softly replied, as the tears fell slowly and openly down her cheeks.
Taking her leave of Melissa, the Princess strode purposefully towards the stables near the gate tower. The walk was not short but eventually she found Bull and Toad waiting in the farrier’s yard, the two roans laden with their saddle sacks and her grey, as before, between.
"Bull and I have been remarking," Toad said, as the Princess approached. "We led them out and that's the position they took up. It would seem that even our mounts are on guard duty!" The Princess laughed.
"So Bull, do you know of an inn we might reach by nightfall?" She asked.
"Do bears defecate in the woods? Begging your pardon, my lady," Bull replied.
It was beyond nightfall when the three riders came upon the sign of ‘The Raven’, the inn Bull had chosen for their overnight sojourn. As they rode through the gate in the wall before the inn, the courtyard within was faintly illuminated by the glow of the lamps hung inside each of the windows and by the faint moonlight which filtered through the thin clouds which hung, as though suspended from heaven on gossamer threads, far above their heads.
The courtyard was bounded by three high walls set at right angles to each other, each with a large arched entrance with thick, wooden gates, which had been thrown back parallel to each wall, and a small postern set into the stonework. The three-storied inn itself made up the fourth boundary. Bull dismounted from his horse and, drawing his bare sword from his belt, placed it into the scabbard which now hung from his saddle. He gently waved his hand to the right of the inn and the Princess was just able to discern what appeared to be a small stable, set a little way back from the courtyard next to the inn.
“Toad,” Bull said. “Wake the farrier from his slumbers and quarter the horses, if you please; I will go and re-acquaint myself with the innkeeper and find some rations and some beds for this night.”
“It is not the best inn in these parts,” Bull said to the Princess apologetically while Toad dismounted. “However, I know the innkeeper and his wife and they are wont not only to keep their ale fresh and sweet but the food, though plain, is always most handsomely prepared and cooked to perfection. The rooms are small and the beds somewhat hard, which the meagre palliasses do little to lessen, but with ale and good food, this is but a minor, insignificant irritation.”
“I bow to your superior knowledge and wisdom, Bull,” the Princess replied with a grin. “I could care not a jot were I to sleep on the bare stones of the castle keep, so weary am I after hours in the saddle.”
The Princess dismounted in turn from her horse but was unsure of who she should follow, Toad or Bull. As she stood there, clearly at a loss, Bull waved her to the right.
“You will want to be ensuring that your horse is settled and comfortable,” Bull said. “It is not your own horse and, were it me, I would wish to take especial care that he was in the best of hands. Go with Toad, he will surely protect you from any untoward advances from the farrier, and settle your horse.”
Bull strode off towards the entrance to the inn, a low wooden door but bound with iron to protect it if the inn should come under attack from the Incursors out of the Far Reaches. Bull paused at the threshold and turned briefly, as if to make certain that all was still well, before unfastening the latch and stepping inside.
“Come, my Lady,” Toad whispered. “I have Bull’s mighty steed as well as mine. You need only lead your own.” Toad smiled.
In truth, Bull’s horse was no more, and no less, a mount than either Toad or the Princess possessed but Bull was wont to inflate both the horse’s size and his prowess as a Percheron when in conversation with strangers or pretty women. The pair walked in silence towards the stable. The Princess had become genuinely fond of the two soldiers who had ensured her safety on her journey to her father’s castle and from there to this inn and she felt that this silence did not become her. It made her feel as if she were a true, high-born Princess, unaccustomed to speaking to low-born soldiers, except perhaps to give them orders or instructions, which she felt certain was not how she wanted to be. She had, since her arrival at Natalia’s cottage all those years ago, believed herself, in spirit, to be a peasant girl first and foremost and a Princess only by default; a mere mischance of birth.
“It is very mild tonight,” she said suddenly to Toad. “I do hope that it will not be too warm for sleep of which I am, truly, in sore need.”
Toad called out to the farrier.
“Raise yourself, oaf,” Toad bellowed. “I have three of the King’s horses here and a Princess to boot, although happily you are only requested to house the three horses!” Toad turned his head towards the Princess and smiled. “Step lively, man, we are waiting!”
The farrier appeared at the doorway to the stables, a small side door alongside the closed gates to the actual stabling area itself. He appeared, as Bull had foretold, to have been abruptly awakened from slumber and he rubbed his eyes wearily as he sought to gain command of his wits. The farrier was a large man, a head taller than Toad, the Princess thought, and girt in a leather apron which came down to his ankles. His broad chest was bare, no doubt as a result of the mildness of the evening, as were his feet; further evidence of his recent slumber. His arms and shoulders bore witness to the many hours labouring under the hammer and the furnace.
“Aye, hold your horses, man!” The farrier said and smiled at his own lame pun. “A prial of the King’s horses, you say; we are honoured to put our humble premises at your disposal; and a Princess to boot, you say. Is that her?” He said pointing at the Princess. “Looks more like a serving wench, if you ask me, beggin’ your pardon Miss, if indeed you be a real Princess.” Toad glared at the farrier and made a move towards both him and to his sword, which still hung scabbarded on his belt.
“No offence meant, really, beggin’ your pardon, kind Sir. It’s just that she don’t look much like a Princess, beggin’ your pardon, Mistress. I thought Princesses, well I thought they were all dressed in silks and gold and dainty slippers and such like; never seen a princess decked out like a serving wench, what with the linen trous and a shirt and boots, beggin’ your pardon, Mistress, your Highness, my Lady.”
“Oh, you are forgiven, kind farrier,” the Princess said. “I must confess that I do not feel much like a Princess tonight. We have ridden far today and our horses need rest and good food and fresh water, as I do. Will you not make haste and open up the doors so that we may bed the beasts down for the night and also be away to our supper and our own beds soonest.”
The farrier disappeared into the stable the way that he had came and, with much cursing and shouting to himself, finally managed to unbolt the main stable doors and to fling them wide open.
“Please to bring your horses inside,” the farrier said. “These three stalls are the best that I have to offer,” he said, indicating three stalls to the rear of the stable, away from the draught that must surely come from the ill-fitting doors. “I will fetch fresh hay and water while you prepare the horses for the night.”
As the farrier disappeared once again into the depths of the stable, Toad led the two horses into the two stalls which he had chosen while the Princess led her own into the one remaining, empty stall. As she undid the girth, unbuckled the crupper and slipped the saddle from the horse’s back, the horse tossed its head to the side and caught her a glancing blow on the jaw. She dropped the saddle which made a loud ‘thump’ as it hit the ground.
“Are you alright,” exclaimed Toad, wheeling around from his own horse. “Are you hurt?”
“I am well, Toad,” the Princess replied. “I should pay more attention. It is one thing to be able to ride but I forget that horses are ten times more dangerous when you are standing beside them than they are when you are bestrides them.”
“Just like Bull,” muttered Toad beneath his breath.
The Princess picked up the saddle and laid it over the rail at the side of the stall. Removing the bridle and bit, she hung it from a hook on the very same rail. She turned and gave the horse a few pats across the cheek under the eyes and a few hearty slaps across the croup for good measure. Unexpectedly, the farrier suddenly appeared out of the gloom of the stable, a mere shadow of a man away from the dim light coming through the doors, for all his height, and threw bales of hay into each of the feeding troughs which lay at the far end of each stall. Running a hose from a standpipe by the entrance to the stables, he filled three buckets to the brim and placed one of them in each of the three stalls.
“There, me beauties, all set up for the night, they is,” the farrier said. “Now, you just get along, missy, your Highness, I’ll keep watch over them, never fear. They won’t come to any harm while they’re in my stable!”
The Princess held her hand in a raised salute and bid farewell to the farrier. Turning to step away from her horse, she collided heavily with Toad who was standing directly behind her. Shaken by the impact, she leapt away from him as though she had been stung.
“My Lady, you are not hurt, I hope,” said Toad apologetically. “It is never wise to leave too great a distance between your charge and the outside world of danger but I fear I have erred in standing too close this time; my sincere apologies, m’Lady. Please forgive me.”
“You great, big lummox,” the Princess exclaimed. “No, I am not hurt, merely surprised; I did not expect you so close. However I am glad to see that you take your duties so seriously. However, a little more distance would be nice next time that you feel that I need to be protected. Besides, standing so close, how would you draw your sword?”
“Ah, you can leave that to me, my Lady,” said Toad as he drew his sword vertically in front of this face, brushing his breastbone and his nose with the fuller before extending his arm to the side to wave the blade. “As close as we were, my Lady, your back wouldn’t have felt even the wind of my blade’s passing.”
The Princess laughed. “I had forgotten that there are swordmasters who have yet to learn what you have already laid aside, Toad. Forgive me, you know your own dexterity; I will put my trust in that skill, ever my trust in that.” She laughed once again and prancing round to the other side of the soldier, she wound her arm around his free arm and gambolled her way to the doors of the stable, leading the helpless soldier in her wake.
As they started to make their way across the courtyard and towards the door to the inn, Toad scabbarded his sword once again in one easy movement as if the point of the blade knew its home so well that no mind need to be given to its housing. He tried vainly to disengage his left arm but the Princess had locked it firmly by now clutching her other hand around her right wrist.
“Princess,” whispered Toad. “This is unseemly, to be so entwined like foolish lovers besotted with wine. I think you should unhand me before someone sees you cavorting with a lowly foot-soldier.”
“Oh Toad,” the Princess said with a disappointed sigh that seemed all too deep for the emotion that she felt. “I will unhand you, of course I will, it is but friendship, although I do not know why you should be so concerned. I am not, after all, in my father’s house, am I? You will not suffer an untimely death at the hands of the palace guard for such presumption, although the presumption is not yours; nor, worse still, a marriage unlooked for. Moreover, I do not consider you to be so lowly, man of infinite skill! However, I should, if I were in your boots, consider myself fortunate to contract to such a seamstress as I.” The Princess laughed again but released his arm and, swinging her arms now to and fro like some soldier on the parade ground, she sauntered up to the door of the inn.
Toad opened the door and, with his back against the iron which bound the wooden planks, bowed low and waved her into the inn with a flourish, as though he were ushering her into a stately ballroom courtesy of the King himself. Toad stepped away from the door and was surprised when, all of its own free will, the door closed behind him. He thought at first that some charm or other had been placed on the entrance by some elf, more knowledgeable than he, but, in glancing upwards towards the lintel, he descried the spring that was the real instrument of this magic. Disappointed, though he knew not why, he turned sharply back to take in the ambience of the room and saw that it was almost empty; just a few lonely souls sitting alone at scattered tables nurturing their isolation in between gulps of ale. Looking around, he could see Bull standing at the oaken shelf that served as a bar in this inn, propping his elbows on the glazed surface as though he could no longer support his own weight. The Princess was already moving towards him; Toad decided to join them.
“Well met, again, Princess,” Bull shouted. “Holla, Toad, your turn to stand the round, methinks! Too long have you kept your silver coins in your purse, Master Pinchpenny! Barkeep, two flagons of ale! And what of you, my good Princess? Some of Master Elias’ fine matured barley wine, or perhaps some Korn tempered with a little water; what say you? Be not slow otherwise my good friend Toad will surely pass you by and leave you thirsty.”
Toad was smiling as he approached the bar, his hands rummaging in the small money purse hanging at his belt. He had become accustomed to Bull’s accusations of miserliness and he paid it no more heed than he had done on countless occasions before.
So, what is it to be, my Lady?” Toad said as he came up from behind the Princess. “I will surely not pass you by and yet you had better be quick, else Bull and I will have finished and you will scarcely have started.”
“Innkeeper, Elias, do you have any mulled wine?” The Princess asked. The innkeeper nodded. “A glass of mulled wine then please. Do you have a cinnamon stick to spare that you may add it to the wine?” The innkeeper nodded once more and turned to enter a narrow door that led to the kitchen and the kettle of steaming wine. He returned a minute or so later and laid the two flagons of ale and a pewter goblet of steaming wine, with two cinnamon sticks, onto the bar.
“That will be four groats, Master Toad. Will you pay now or shall I tot it all up for when you are so far into your cups that you will have forgotten all that you have done this night and I shall have to sweep you up the stairs to your beds with my besom!”
“Oh, just as you wish,” said Toad, feigning exasperation. “We will pay later when we have finished for the evening, or perhaps tomorrow morn’. No doubt, you will diddle us, as is your wont, but it is of no matter. Tonight we sup with a Princess and that is a tale to tell for such as I and worth every silver penny, I’d wager.” The Princess flushed and rapidly took a sip of the hot wine.
“Tell me, Master Barkeep,” said Bull. “What do you have for supper? Something toothsome, I hope; we entertain royalty tonight! I have assured my good Princess that the food here is as good as, if not better, than that at the King’s own High Table. Do not disappoint!”
“Ah, you have the very luck of the Dark One tonight,” replied the innkeeper. “My wife has prepared venison stew with bay, garlic and the blood of the stag for a party coming in later this evening. Needless to say, she has produced enough to feed a regiment of hungry soldiers even though only sufficient for eight was required. We have taters, carrots and turnip to accompany. Will that do for your Princess, do you think?” Toad and the Princess nodded enthusiastically.
“Well, I suppose it will have to do,” Bull smiled. “Enough to feed a regiment, you say? Then bring it on, man, and extra gravy; a soldier needs to feed on blood every once and a while and stag’s blood is just as nourishing as an Incursor’s! We will sit over there, by the window; it will be cooler, methinks.”
The three hungry guests, each carrying their own drink, made their way to the table that Bull had indicated. Sitting themselves down, the Princess took a deep breath and asked, somewhat apprehensively:
“You don’t really drink Incursor blood, do you, Bull?”
“No, it would taste fouler than the most noisome beast but it never hurts to spread a little mischievous rumour. News and rumour travel fast, especially so in the direction of the Far Reaches. Perhaps, the tale does need a little embellishment; what say you, Toad? Shall we put it about that not only do we drink their blood but we do so only when they are still alive and conscious! Lapping it up like bats from the open artery.” Toad guffawed.
The innkeeper brought a large tray to the table and started laying out the plates and the cutlery while his wife, a large and robust woman with child bearing hips and thighs that looked to Bull as though they would crush the life out of him in two seconds should he decide on a brief dalliance, laid out two huge tureens and a basket of bread. As she removed the lids of the tureens, the heady aroma of venison blood could be smelt intermingled with the sweet scent of carrot and minted potatoes. After the meal had been laid out, the pair bowed gracefully as though this were a much practised act for which they perhaps wanted some applause but, in its absence, they left the travellers to dine in peace.
As the three spooned large gobbets of venison onto the plates, it became clear that the innkeeper had been too frugal with his list of ingredients. In addition to whole cloves of peeled garlic, there were shallots, gently sweated whole before joining the stew; bite sized pieces of celeriac; broad beans; courgettes, sliced thickly to preserve the flavour and finally a kind of fungus that only the Princess had any knowledge of; ‘little pigs’ they were called, she had said, but difficult to find. She had once found them by a tree in Natalia’s garden but that was the only place that she knew that they grew for certain. Old Ramly, the Spicemaster in the village, had told her that they were safe to eat and given her a name to call them by; their flavour was richer, darker and more intense than other fungi and was made all the more powerful when dried when they soaked up whichever sauce might be in the stew.
As Toad called for more bread, the party, to which the three weary travellers owed such a sumptuous meal, came into the inn. They quite clearly had been visiting other ale-houses in the area and the innkeeper visibly raised his eyes to the ceiling as if praying for some divine aid or succour.
“Well met,” cried the innkeeper, although he did not think that these fellows were indeed ‘well met’. “Come, your table awaits you. Wine is laid upon the board and your meal will be served as and when you please! It simmers on the hearth as I speak.” The innkeeper grimaced as one by one the party made their way over in his direction, some more unsteady than others. Two of the females could barely stand and yet the only support which they had was the other; the remaining members of the party had clearly decided to disown them. As the party eventually attained some kind of equilibrium on the chairs around the table, after much changing of seats and raucous laughter in between, the innkeeper was already beginning to seriously regret having accepted this party, for all that it had paid well; in advance too.
The Princess found the interruption to her meal somewhat annoying. She was enjoying the food and, if truth be known, the two soldiers made excellent dining companions; much better than their captain she considered. Her thoughts were interrupted as a young girl, little more than perhaps seven or eight summers old, appeared suddenly at the side of the table carrying a basket of bread, although where she had come from and who she was, the Princess did not know; perhaps a daughter of the innkeeper, a tiny helpmate if the inn became too busy for one man and his wife. Toad turned around on his chair opposite the Princess to accept the basket from the girl; her eyes were barely level with the table. As he took the basket from her hands with his left, he tousled her hair with the other.
“You have keen ears, little one,” he said. “To hear my call over such din and clamour as that rabble is making. Thank you, I am much in your debt. Here’s a groat for your trouble; buy yourself a little treat in the village when next you go, some candied fruit or other such sweet trifle. Now run along and get back to your mama, she is missing you already.” The child, clearly elated at such a vast sum, to her, as a gift, disappeared behind the bar as quickly as she had appeared, if not as mysteriously.
“Heaven, they’re a pain in the rump, make no mistake, Princess,” said Toad, as he tore off a huge chunk of bread and dipped it into the gravy on his plate. “Twill be no better if we retire to our rooms, I fear; they are immediately above them if I am any judge. Let us finish our meal and retire to the open air; I am sure that the innkeeper will not mind us taking the chairs outside. The noise might somehow be bearable in the courtyard and it is still a mild night; there is little chill in the air.”
The Princess and Bull both nodded, although perhaps all the Princess wanted was her bed; still, in this Toad was right, they would get no sleep while that party remained in the inn. At last, there was nothing left in the tureens, Bull had used a spoon and the last of the bread to mop them dry and was leaning back, his hands clasped behind his head, a grin of extreme satisfaction on his face.
“Go,” he said. “I have some business with the innkeeper that will not keep until morning. Go take the night air, I will join you shortly. Perhaps you would check on the horses also, while you are out there, I never trusted, or trust, that farrier, although, in truth, I had and have no reason. Go, gather up your drinks and retire to the night air; I will return shortly with more ale, have no fear.”
Bull rose from his seat and walked off in the direction of the bar, and the innkeeper, while Toad swept up both his own chair and Bull’s in his hands and, bidding the Princess to carry what remained of their drinks, went out into the balmy night air. Casting around for a suitable place to sit, Toad espied a small feed station, for horses or mules, which was partially covered by a plank set over it to keep the rain out. Thinking that it would make a makeshift but excellent trestle, Toad laid the chairs at the side of it and bade the Princess to sit.
“If Bull wants to go and check on the horses, let him go himself; I have no such worries about our good master farrier!” Toad said as he sat down. “Besides, it would be an insult to the poor man to wake him yet again from his slumber for such a paltry reason as mistrust, wouldn’t you agree, Princess?”
“Most certainly, Toad!” she exclaimed, smiling. “A grave insult, to be sure!” She chuckled but just at that moment, as she began to relax into her chair, a chill gust of wind made her shudder, as though someone had walked across her mother’s grave, and she felt the gooseflesh slowly creep all over her body.
“You are cold, m’Lady?” asked Toad. “Come, let me offer you my jerkin, I have little need of it.” Toad took off his leather jerkin and laid it across the Princess’ shoulders, fastening it around her throat with the two small, fine leather straps that made the only closure.
“I thank you, Toad, for your kindness,” the Princess said. “Perhaps you would gather me closer to you; I feel somewhat more chilled than this night air should warrant; perhaps I am sickening for something or evil, perchance, is afoot.” The soldier laid his arm across her shoulder, as gently as he might, and gathered the Princess as close as he thought decorum would allow. As she laid her head onto his shoulder, the door to the inn swung wide yet again. However, instead of Bull’s re-appearance with ale and wine, the two females, who had earlier relied so heavily upon each others’ support, came into view, no less in need of support. As they stumbled away from the door, the taller of the two looked in Toad’s direction.
“Well, what have we ‘ere,” she bellowed. “Two young lovers, a-billing an’ a-cooing; ah, ain’t it sweet.” Toad immediately took his arm from around the Princess’ shoulder and quickly grabbed hold of his flagon of ale.
“You’d think she could do better than some old battle-scarred soldier to go-a-romping with, wouldn’t you; she ain’t what I would call, well, beautiful, especially in those clothes, but I doubt that even she could be so desperate!” She gulped at the bottle of wine that she was clutching to her breast. “ My, my, what a sight! He surely couldn’t have come out from between his mother’s legs like that, the midwife would still be in shock! Perhaps she still is!” The woman cackled. As the laughter took hold, she lurched forward and her companion barely caught her in time before she nearly pitched headfirst into the well-pounded dirt which made up the floor of the courtyard. Regaining her balance, the taller of the two continued with her diatribe.
“Perhaps she is blind, my sweet, my good friend, my partner-in-crime and can no more see the face of her beau than I can see the inside of the King’s citadel. Yes, that must be it! Blind, and stupid too, if I am any judge. To walk beside such as he, even if besotted by wine, would be more than I could bear. Heavens, it would fair shame me, have no doubt!”
The Princess bristled with anger at such an affront to her integrity but more so, if truth be known, for Toad; he who risked life and limb every day in the protection of their people, and herself, and merely on the command of a Captain and his own sense of duty; what it was to do right. She felt genuinely sickened by what she was hearing.
“Pay it no heed, Princess,” Toad whispered. “It is merely the bravado of those all too far into their cups to notice what it is that they say. It is of no import; do not trouble yourself with this. It is all but wind, no more.” However, the taller of the two women, despite her companion’s attempts to calm her down, would not be quietened.
“Hah! Do you think he has to pay for the privilege, I wonder? Not for all the cinnamon tea in the world would I step out with such a one. Fair makes my eyes bleed just to consider it! Still, once a doxie, forever a doxie; just close your eyes now, dearie, it will all be over in a trice and then you’ll be that silver penny the richer!”
As the door opened once more and Bull stepped into the gloom, his arms laden with a tray of ale and wine, the Princess launched herself away from her chair and positively vaulted over the feed stall. The chair clattered behind her as it turned cartwheels across the courtyard. With her fist held high, she bore down on the two women as though she was a banshee sent from the Dark One himself; and there was murder in her eyes.
Toad sprang from his chair, upsetting the flagon of ale which fell, emptying its contents and soaking the parched earth of the courtyard and went in pursuit as fast as his long legs could carry him. Bull let the tray that he was holding tumble to the ground as he too made to head off the Princess in her rage. Mere inches away from the hapless pair of women, Toad managed to grasp the Princess’ wrist and spun her around just as Bull made fast her other arm.
“Let me go!” the Princess screamed. “She will pay for what she has said; and pay dear! I am a Princess and he is a noble and courageous soldier. By his skill, and the skill of him and his companions only, are you protected from the Incursors; I will have just recompense for this affront!”
As Bull and Toad struggled to hold the Princess in check, the two women cowered in the doorway, retreating there in the face of the Princess’ onslaught. As inebriated as they were, still they possessed enough wit to be frightened and both tried to make profuse apology to the Princess, claiming ignorance or jest as a way of mitigating the insults whilst fumbling in vain with the latch of the door.
Bull, still with both hands clasped around the Princess’ wrist spoke calmly, a voice like gilded draperies gently fluttering in the breeze; a voice which the Princess had never heard before and so unlike the Bull that she thought that she had come to know.
“Get along inside, you two, or better still, be off to your beds. She is indeed a Princess and a better blade than you will find in all the kingdom of the Elves. As angered as she is, it would not be wise to anger her still further by your pathetic whining, lest she take my good friend’s sword and skewer you where you stand.” He paused briefly. “Come, Princess! Toad will fetch us more ale, for I fear that what I have brought has come to naught, and we will sit again and speak of ‘cabbages and kings’. These sad wretches do not deserve even the anger of the fairest of the fair, whatever their fault.”
As Toad released the Princess’ wrist and released the latch, the two women passed back inside of the inn, Toad followed, and closed the door behind him; off for some more of the ale that Bull had so wantonly poured into the earth of the courtyard. The Princess snickered as Bull let go of her wrist, which bore the marks of how tightly he had held her and the strength of her struggle to release herself.
“A better blade than in all the kingdom of the elves,” she said with a smile. “I wish it were so, Bull. You tell a fine lie, a pretty story, so you do; oh, and how I wish it were true!”
“Come, Princess,” replied Bull. “I know not what occasioned this outburst but warranted I fear it was. I have never seen you so incensed unless it were after your audience with the King and yet, that was tempered by sadness, by regret. Here was only blind rage, I think. It would be imprudent to ask why you should thus take matters so far into your own hands. Is that not what Toad and I were sent on this journey for; to prevent any peril befalling our good Princess? Perhaps we have been remiss, Toad and I; perhaps the greater peril lies within, not without.” He smiled. “Still, nicely done, m’Lady, whatever the reason; I was almost frightened myself!”
Bull led her to the feed stall, their makeshift trestle, and righting the chairs bade her to sit. As she sat down, she peered up into his eyes and then away to the door and back up into his eyes. As she looked to the door once more, she could see Toad appear; he was carrying a tray laden with ale and wine and oaten cakes topped with cream. As he started out on the short walk across the courtyard, towards where she was sitting, she hung her head and averted her eyes, as though in shame, although she felt none, merely a sense of pride at what she had done.
“I understand, Princess,” Bull whispered. “Yes, I think that I may understand. Come, let us wait on our drink, and lo, what do I espy? Cakes and cream, Princess! And a pot of strawberry preserve! O, good man, Toad, good man. A fine dessert, a drink and then we shall be off to bed as soon as we may. It has been a long day, and a long night, and we have still a way to go tomorrow.”
The return journey was as uneventful as the outward and, as they arrived at the outpost, the Captain was surprised to see the Princess so soon after her departure.
"Nothing went ill, I hope, Princess?" he asked, as the Princess dismounted.
"Nothing that your two gallant guardians could have prevented," she replied. "Captain, your elves have done sterling service and had little more reward then a sore rump from days in the saddle. May I join you in your quarters, I wish to propose something to you." She smiled.
"Bull! Toad! Dismissed!" the Captain said.
Seated at the same small table as before, the Princess sipped the small glass of wine the Captain had provided. "Captain,” she said. “I would like Bull and Toad to escort me for the rest of the way to my cot. “When I am safely home,” she said. “I will return them to you. I would then like you to send them with a carriage and this letter to the ‘overseer of maids’ at the castle. They may stay at the castle, free of all duties, until the appointed day contained in the letter, two sevendays hence. I would then like them to escort the carriage, its occupant and themselves to my cottage. There you will give them a further sevenday to make themselves acquainted with the local flora and fauna." The Princess smiled. "They will then be returned to you. Is this acceptable?" She asked.
"I think that I might be able to accommodate your suggestion, Princess," the Captain replied. "Some more wine?"
After another small glass of wine, the Princess made her farewells to the Captain and left for the short journey to the village.
As the trio meandered along the winding paths towards Natalia's village, the Princess turned to Toad. "Toad,” she said. “When we reach the village, I must return this horse to its rightful owner. May I ride your roan for the trip from village to cot? It is not far."
"Gladly," Toad replied. "My mount would not forgive me if I did not allow him such a privilege, gelding though he is!" He laughed.
"Do not tarry on the return journey, Toad," the Princess said. "The Captain, and I, have another errand for you." She smiled.
The ostler was astonished to see the Princess in the company of so fierce a duo of warriors as they stood in front of the stable; Figo's grey was loosely tethered to a post, and the Princess was mounted on a roan, Toad's horse.
"Your weskit! I have not forgotten! Bring me the skins on the morrow," she cried and Figo knew that there was no need for concern for her safety, however fearsome her companions may have appeared. The trio turned, Toad striding by the Princess' new mount, and they continued down the lane that led to the seamstress' house. At last, Natalia's cottage came into view. The Princess smiled, something, which despite her sadness, had happened all too frequently these past two days. Pausing at the gate, the Princess dismounted.
"Toad! Bull!” She said. “You were well met indeed! Take good care of our kind and, please, no foolish, suicidal squabbles over poor and innocent maidens; our people have need of you! Fare Well!"
"And we you, my lady! Fare Well!" The pair replied in unison.
The Princess walked the short path to the door under the gaze of her erstwhile guardians and, pushing it open, declared with a flourish:
"Well, I'm back!"
Thanks, acknowledgements but no royalties to:
Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention and Fotheringay for ‘Fotheringay’
‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’ for Bull
Jean Anouilh and ‘Antigone’ for the climax
J R R Tolkien for the last words
The Elfin Princess for the story. I hope that you find a better resolution.
Any other indebtedness is shameless plagiarism and I await the solicitors’ letters with eager anticipation!
Ever tried to sue a penguin?