Location: Edge of the Woods near the road (Outside) (Afternoon)
Heroine “Are they coming? Have they seen us?”
Henri signaled me to silence. He rose warily, but relaxed as Philippe returned to cropping the grass beneath the tree.
Henri “Only a merchant caravan, Highness. We’d best rejoin the others. I was foolish to bring you so far.”
Heroine “I don’t regret our ride.”
Henri “Yes, but in such dangerous circumstances I have been incautious.”
(There’s that warm smile and those distant eyes again! He’s such a contradiction!)
Henri “I let my desire to explore your charms cloud my judgment.”
Heroine “I’m starting to see a pattern in your inappropriate remarks, Sir Henri.”
(He always gets flirtatious when there’s some talk about real feelings.)
Philippe chose that moment to whinny loudly, brushing his muzzle across Henri’s chest.
Henri “Cast light on my motivations some other time, Highness. Even Philippe sees it is time to go.”
(I made him uncomfortable. Am I actually onto something?)
Nicolas “Ho, sir knight! Let us begin!”
Sir Nicolas and the others waited in the road, flanking a carriage drawn by two horses and driven by Pierre.
Location: The carriage (Outside) (Afternoon)
I rode in the carriage with Sir Jacques and Sir Alexandre. The other knights spread out before and behind us, with Henri scouting further ahead.
(Will I live the rest of my life pursued by enemies?)
(No, I can’t surrender to thoughts like that. I need more information.)
Heroine “Can one of you can tell me what we can expect on our journey?”
Jacques “With any journey, Princess [USER_FIRST_NAME], there is what one expects and what actually happens. In dark times like these . . . “
Alexandre “Don’t let Jacques’ gloom frighten you. We are prepared for all contingencies.”
Heroine “In my village, we say ‘Don’t waste honey on sour fruit’ – it means don’t try to conceal the truth with pretty lies.”
Alexandre “Your Highness prefers frankness. Very well – there are miles and perils aplenty on our path.”
Jacques “Our difficulties proceed the kingdom’s difficulties. The king’s long illness has weakened his grip on power.”
Jacques “Lawlessness in on the rise. Bandits rule the roads, thieves infest the towns and cities . . . ”
Pierre “It is said that, in the capitol, one cannot lift a sewer-grate without uncovering a Gladusian spy.”
Heroine “I once read a history of ancient Albion. There was a passage about the fall of the last emperor . . . “
Jacques “’When the strength of great men fails, small men reach above themselves to speed his final fall.’ It’s from Marchion’s The End of Albion.”
He pulled a battered old book from his pack and handed it to me.
Jacques “I’ve been rereading it myself. Good history for a princess who may soon be – ah . . . at court.“
(He was going to say, “queen.” My father is dying and I will be the queen!)
Heroine “Thank you. I will look for any mention of the fate of great women.”
Jacques “You’ll find little encouragement on that score. Marchion was brilliant, but a pig.”
Alexandre “Of more immediate concern than the kingdom’s political struggles, Highness, is our road today. We travel to the town of Tourval.”
a) “Are our enemies there?”
b) “I hope we’ll find a hot bath and soft beds.”
c) “Let’s not stop. I want to see my father.”
Heroine “Are . . . my enemies waiting for us there?”
Alexandre “Your enemies are our concern, Highness. You need not fear – “
Jacques “Don’t coddle her, Alexandre. She deserves the truth.”
Heroine “Yes. Please.”
Alexandre “Of course. There are few bandits on this stretch of our road, but Tourval harbors many who sympathize with Gladius.”
Jacques “Yet the Fox and Frog Inn serves good food and has soft beds!”
Alexandre “And more pertinent than how it suits Jacques’ love of ease and rest, it is run by loyal allies of your father.”
Heroine “I hope Tourval offers us hot baths and soft beds.”
Jacques “It does indeed, Highness. The Fox and Frog has the freshest water and the thickest mattresses in the province.”
Alexandre “Jacques’s love of rest and ease makes him a fine judge, but more importantly, the inn’s proprietors are loyal allies to your father.”
Heroine “Let’s not stop in Tourval. I’m anxious to see my father.”
Alexandre “The horses need rest and the roads north of Tourval are not safe after dark.”
Jacques “Besides, what could be better than a warm meal and a soft bed after a day of . . . riding comfortably in a carriage.”
Heroine “Hahaha! Perhaps we’ll compare notes about Marchion , Sir Lazybones.”
Jacques “After my nap, Highness.”
Heroine “Very well then, on to Tourval.”
I reacquainted myself with The End of Albion as day turned into evening and the miles to Tourval fell behind us.
Jacques was right – the author said little of women and thought less.
Location: Fox and Frog Inn, Tourval village (Outside) (Evening)
The Fox and Frog stood at the edge of the village.
Innkeeper “Sir Nicholas! You managed your journey in good order. This must be the niece you spoke of, the one from the country?”
The surprise on my face caused Henri some amusement. He sidled up to me and whispered.
Henri “Sir Nicolas neglected to tell you of his plan to conceal your true identity, I take it?”
A round of awkward introductions ensued. Apparently, I was to be Nicolas’s niece, “Priscilla,” for the duration of our stay.
The stable boys took the horses away. Our luggage was moved inside. I went to my room to bathe and change.
(How strange to bathe with Henri standing guard outside my door!)
Location: Fox and Frog Inn (Inside) (Night)
Refreshed, I came down to the inn’s tavern. Jacques dozed beneath a window, an open book on his chest.
Pierre and Alexandre were deep in conversation with one of the inn’s other guests, a merchant by the look of him. . .
. . . while Henri and Sir Nicolas sipped mugs of ale by the fire.
I owed Sir Nicolas a surprise equal to my own earlier astonishment, so I flung my arms around him and gave him a wet kiss on the cheek.
Heroine “Uncle Nicolas!”
He sputtered into his ale, sending foam flying everywhere.
Nicolas “I . . . I do beg your pardon, Princess [USER_FIRST_NAME] –”
Heroine “I understand and approve your caution, though you’d best call me ‘Priscilla” and not . . . the other thing.”
Henri “He meant to tell you, but he’s been so busy jumping at every shadow that it completely slipped his mind.”
Heroine “Are you really so worried, Sir Nicolas? Alexandre and Jacques said this inn was run by friends.”
Nicolas “True, but an inn is no fortress.”
Henri “Nicolas cannot sleep unless he has worried every problem into a state of exhaustion to match his own.”
Heroine “Speaking of exhaustion, I’m off to bed.”
Henri “Company, Priscilla?”
Heroine “If you wish to keep company with the hall outside my locked door, then yes.”
Henri “If that is to be my fate, then I will suffer it after another pint of ale.”
As I moved away, Alexandre and Pierre brought their merchant friend over to join Nicolas and Henri.
Location: The Inn Yard (Night)
Despite my best intentions, sleep eluded me. Finally surrendering to restlessness, I pulled on my nightgown and wandered into the inn yard.
I pulled out a miniature portrait of Grandmother from a clever pocket stitched into the nightgown.
(Oh, Grandmother! I’ve left home . . . but the road ahead is so uncertain, so full of danger!)
(And what is to be made of Henri? What was it he said to me beside the tree?)
(“After your slow, careful life in the village, you must be ready for things to move quickly for a time.”)
Heroine “I responded with such confidence in the light of day, but now . . . “
???? “Questioning your resolve, Highness, or simply lonely?”
(Oh! I didn’t hear him come out!)
I slipped the miniature back into its pocket and turned to see Henri silhouetted in the inn’s door.
Heroine “How could I be lonely with so persistent a companion?”
I meant it as a mischievous jab, but he responded with seriousness.
Henri “Do not be deceived by the peace of the inn yard, m’lady. As Nicolas said, an inn is no fortress.”
He closed the distance between us with a speed that startled me again.
Heroine “And where is Sir Nicolas?”
Henri “Off to bed, m’lady. A fine commander, but over sometimes fond of his drink.”
Henri “Yet my question lingers — are you lonely? If so, I could help . . . relieve your solitude.”
The torchlight caught a glint of metal above his collar.
(A locket? Does he carry a picture of someone dear to him as well?)
Heroine “Whose image do you carry close to your heart, Sir?”
His eyes flashed anger, then the ice returned.
Henri “Your Highness will forgive me, but even her humble servants are entitled to some privacy.”
(He shows me nothing of his true self, so he will get none of mine!)
Heroine “Then I will grant you your privacy and return to my bed – “
He made a small noise, as if preparing another of his sly, seductive remarks.
Heroine “ – alone. ”
(Truly, he puzzles me still.)
At my door, I stopped to find Henri behind me, prepared to take up his guard post in the hall.
Heroine “Would you put my nightgown with my bag downstairs?”
(He looks startled. Does he think I’m going to take it off in front of him?!)
Before he could riposte, I stepped behind my door, removed the gown, and handed it around to him. I then closed the door with a smile.
Location: Fox and Frog Inn (Heroine’s room) (Morning)
I woke hours later to pounding on my door.
Henri “Our luggage has been stolen!”
Heroine “What? How–?”
Henri “We entrusted our bags to the innkeeper. The stable boy he set to guard them was given a potion.”
Heroine “Is he all right?”
Henri “He will be fine, but the false merchant will not, once we catch him.”
Heroine “False merchant? The man you were talking with last night is the thief?”
Henri “He claimed knowledge of the road ahead of us and we, like fools, believed him.”
Henri “We must catch him. Our most precious valuables we kept with us, but your bags, m’lady, might contain something to reveal you.”
(They do contain something that may expose my true identity!)
Heroine “Oh, no! The nightgown I gave you last night – a miniature of my grandmother is concealed in a secret pocket!”
Henri “A precious artifact to be sure, but unlikely to reveal your identity.”
Heroine “Except that the princess’s nurse would have been well known at court before she spirited me away at the king’s behest.”
Henri “Spies looking for you would be looking for her as well. Yes, I see.”
(And it is my only image of Grandmother. Who knows when I may see her again!)
Henri “Dress quickly. Everyone rushes to ready the horses and the carriage. We will catch them –”
Heroine “But not if we delay. I’ll be right down.”
The next hour passed in a blur. The innkeeper couldn’t stop apologizing, Sir Nicolas couldn’t stop fretting and shouting for haste.
Finally, the carriage horses were in harness, Philippe and the other chargers were saddled and we flew from the inn yard in a cloud of dust.
This day, Alexandre and Henri rode in the carriage with me, with Philippe tethered behind. Pierre drove, as usual, while Nicolas and Jacques ranged ahead.
Alexandre “We shall catch them, Highness. I swear it.”
Henri “What a relief to be done with treating you like a commoner.”
Heroine “I regret having been such a burden.”
Henri “Petulance does not become you, Highness.“
Alexandre “Have a care, Henri! You disrespect your princess.”
Henri “How can the passionate attentions of an ardent suitor ever be disrespectful?”
Heroine “They can when the passion and ardor are not reciprocated!”
Henri “The blush on your check belies your claim of disinterest, m’lady.”
(I am blushing! How does he do this to me?)
Sir Nicolas rode up at that moment, relieving me of the need to respond.
Nicolas “Their wagon nears the far hill, but none of our horses is swift enough – “
Henri “Say no more! Philippe, it is our time!”
The great horse tossed his huge head in assent. As Henri untethered him, he galloped up beside the carriage. Henri leaped into the saddle.
(They’re like one creature when they move together.)
Heroine “Be careful, Henri!”
(I didn’t plan that, it just came out.)
He smiled back at me and my heart stuttered.
Henri and Philippe closed the distance rapidly. The rest of us halted on a hill overlooking the road.
Heroine “Will he catch them?”
Alexandre “It will be a near thing. Philippe’s heart is great, but he is only flesh-and-blood.”
The thief whipped his team without mercy. The distance between the wagon and its pursuers began to widen again.
Heroine “He’s getting away!”
Nicolas “Wait and watch, Highness. Henri is unlimbering his bow.”
Heroine “But . . . he’s on horseback! How can he expect to fire accurately?”
Before anyone could speak, Henri fired his first arrow. It struck the right, rear wagon wheel with a loud crack.
Pierre “In respect to his skill as an archer at least, the man’s arrogance is warranted.”
What came next was the most incredible display of archery I had ever seen. Henri notched another arrow, fired . . .
. . . and struck the same wheel in precisely the same spot! He then repeated the feat yet a third time!
The wheel rim shattered and the wagon veered off the road, throwing the thief to the ground.
In minutes, we joined Henri and Philippe around the wrecked wagon. He held the thief at sword point.
Henri “Would you care to reward the savior of your luggage with a kiss?”
a) Kiss him on the cheek
b) Slap him
c) Walk away
(He does deserve some reward for his skill with a bow . . .)
I stepped forward and pecked Henri on the cheek.
Henri “A fair down payment from a fair maiden.”
Thief “Can I get me one ‘a those, m’gal?”
(How dare he!)
I surprised myself by slapping Henri across the face.
Thief “Oh, ho! Fair payment to you, sir knight!”
(He does deserve some reward for his skill with a bow – No! What am I thinking!?)
I spun on my heel and walked away.
Thief “Oh, ho! Would you fancy me, then, m’gal?”
In one swift motion, Henri struck the thief across the head with the flat of his sword. The man collapsed, unconscious.
Heroine “Why did you – “
Henri “He lacked proper respect, Highness.”
Heroine “He lacked . . . but you are constantly – “
Henri “He had earned no consideration from you and he knew it. I, on the other hand, shall collect my full reward later.”
(He is a smug, arrogant beast!)
Heroine “There will be no ‘full reward,’ sir knight. Now or in the future!”
He smiled his charming smile, but his eyes showed nothing.
Henri “Of course, Highness. We risk death to recover your trifles, but you will dispose of our affections as you wish.”
Pierre “Now see here, Monville! You’ve no right – “
Henri “You’re correct. I have no right. You are our princess, Highness, and we your subjects. Our duty is to serve you . . . “
Henri “. . . in every possible way.”
And with that same sly wink he greeted me with yesterday, he set about binding the thief and gave me not a further thought.
Would that I could say the same about my thoughts of him.