Location: Fox and Hare Inn (Interior) (Morning)
Sir Jacques and I soon returned to the inn with our reward for intervening in the matter of the thief and the apothecary’s daughter.
Nicolas “An excellent and timely success, Highness! As you can see, Pierre is bringing down the last bit of our luggage as we speak.”
Fearful for the fate of his treasures, Jacques lunged to help Pierre with the trunk full of books.
Heroine “You mentioned a village called Hamlin this morning. That is our destination?”
Henri “It is indeed, m’lady. A den of iniquity more vile cannot be found in all Valois.”
a) “Then why take that route?”
b) “Is there not a road through the Forest?”
c) “Why not take a boat from the coast?”
Heroine “If it is so dangerous, why take that route?”
Alexandre “The other possible paths are even more worrisome. Pirates dominate the seas off Valois’s coasts . . .
Nicolas “The second route lies through the aforementioned Hamlin . . . “
Henri “. . . and the third takes us through the Forest of Riveaux. It is, perhaps, even more dangerous than Hamlin. A notorious lair of bandits and brigands.”
Heroine “Is there not a road through the Forest of Riveaux?”
Alexandre “There is, Highness, and it was once a fine one. Now, Riveaux is a notorious hideout for bandits, brigands, and highwaymen.”
Nicolas “We also considered the sea route, but the waters along Valois’s coast are infested with pirates. Hamlin seems the best of a bad lot.”
Heroine “Why not take a ship along the coast, thus avoiding all possible dangers on the land?”
Henri “In safer times, perhaps, but the coastal waters are infested with pirates, whereas the Forest of Riveaux is a lair for bandits and brigands.”
Alexandre “Hamlin seems the best of a bad lot of choices.”
Henri “I also argued against Riveaux because it would require us to sleep rough, Highness. No soft beds or room service.”
Heroine “You again imply I am best treated as some kind of pampered house pet, Sir Henri. On what are you basing your assumptions?”
Jacque and Pierre turned from placing Jacques’s trunk on the carriage to join the conversation.
Jacques “Only on what we observe, Highness, of women of your social caste and status.”
Heroine “Is this your experience of me, personally, as well?”
Pierre “’Tis not mine, Princess. I’ve tried explaining to these dolts that you are a unique case.”
Heroine “Perhaps I have not demonstrated myself sufficiently, Pierre. In truth, I am still taken up with amazement at the sudden change in my circumstances . . . “
Heroine “. . . but time will tell. Choose whatever route to the Palace you feel is best, sirs. That is your expertise and none of mine . . . “
Heroine “. . . but make those choices with regard for all our safety, and not upon your ill-conceived assumptions about my need for comfort and convenience.”
Nicolas “As Your Highness wishes. I still believe Hamlin to be the better choice.”
Alexandre “And I concur. Whatever our journey offers, please know our swords remain sworn to your defense.”
Jacques “As always, Sir Alexandre overstates the case. My sword is sworn to the defense of one worthy to sit on the throne, should it come to that . . . “
Jacques “. . . and I await somewhat more proof than the brave words Her Highness has just offered.”
Nicolas “Sir Jacques! You are impertinent and disrespectful – “
I held up my hand to still Sir Nicolas’s tongue, all the while looking directly into Sir Jacques eyes.
Heroine “Sir Jacques demonstrated his prowess this morning, and this entitles him to speak his mind as he likes to me . . . “
Heroine “. . . but just as he awaits proof of my worthiness, I await proof of his interest in anything beyond himself and his books.”
Location: Village of Hamlin (Exterior) (Day)
The day’s journey to Hamlin was as free of incident as it was of fruitful conversation.
Each knight except for Jacques, perhaps sensing the mood I was in, choose some duty other than to bide in the carriage with me.
As we entered Hamlin, I ventured my first comments since leaving the inn that morning.
Heroine “I would not expect a village with such an evil reputation to look otherwise, yet this is an exceptionally foul looking place.”
Jacques lifted his nose from Captain Tolliver to glance out the carriage windows.
Jacques “Indeed, Highness. It seems Peré Jarret was right when he wrote, ‘Dark dispositions decree dark miens.’”
Heroine “Peré Jarret was over-fond of alliteration. But in this case, his sentiment rings true.”
Nicolas “We shall investigate the least noisome of the inns hereabouts. Jacques, stay with Her Highness – and remain alert!”
(Again, they “protect” me by depriving me of choice.)
Location: Carriage (Interior) (Day)
Jacques “I can sense your dismay, Highness, but your battle to be taken seriously is not lost. Heed the advice of the good Captain here . . . “
He pointed toward the book in his hand, from which his nose rose only slightly.
Jacques “. . . in his conflict with the Dervishes of Agristan, he gathered information before taking action, ultimately achieving total victory.”
a) “Tell me about yourself.”
b) “Tell me about Sir Henri.”
c) “Tell me about the problems of the kingdom.”
Heroine “Then let me gather information on you, Sir Jacques. Your background, how you came to be a knight, perhaps?”
Jacques “A tale of deadly dullness, Highness. I was a boy who dreamed of grand things, now I am a man in a mundane world.”
Heroine “Tell me then of the mundane world. How did my father’s kingdom come to its current sad state?”
Jacques looked at me over the top of his book, his eyes measuring me with a new interest.
Heroine “Then let me gather information on Sir Henri. What can you tell me of him?”
Jacques “Henri Monville is much as you see him, Highness. A remarkable archer, a braggart, but a loyal comrade . . . as long as no woman is involved.”
(Jacques is not a man engaged by gossip, clearly. Very well, something more of interest to us both . . .)
Heroine “Tell me then your thoughts on how my father’s kingdom came to its current sad state?”
Jacques’s head did not move, but his eyes leapt from the pages of his book to bore into my own.
Heroine “Very well. As part of my information gathering, provide me with your insight into how my father’s kingdom came to such a sorry state?”
Jacques actually put down his book to consider me carefully.
Jacques “There are hard truths here, Highness. If you sincerely wish my thoughts . . .”
Heroine “I wish to know the cause of the chaos in which the kingdom finds itself. Pirates on our coast, bandits, brigands, thieves at every quarter . . . “
Jacques “A breakdown in the social order such as Valois now experiences begins as a failure of governance.”
Heroine “You suggest my father the King is at fault?”
Jacques “He seems a decent man, but misguided in his choice of advisors.”
For some time, we explored the kingdom’s difficulties, with many references to thinkers with whose works we both were familiar.
Jacques “. . . and so you see, if we apply Maeterlinck’s theory to contemporary Valois . . .“
Heroine “A moment, Sir Jacques: how long since we were left here?”
Jacques “It has been some time, Perhaps a quarter hour or more?”
Heroine “We must go in search of Sir Nicolas and the others.”
Jacques “I’m not sure of that course, Highness. It is comfortable here and the company . . . not entirely unpleasant.”
(I have risen in his eyes to “not entirely unpleasant.” A change indeed!)
Heroine “Nevertheless, I am going. If you wish to accompany me . . . “
Jacques “Since Your Highness leaves me no choice, join you I shall.”
Scouting the seedy streets of Hamlin for some clue to the whereabouts of our companions, a loud commotion drew our attention.
Location: Alley behind the tavern (Exterior) (Day)
Moving into an alley behind the building from which the noise emanated, Jacques and I peered inside.
Jacques “It seems our friends have chosen to inquire about lodging in the headquarters of Hamlin’s largest band of thieves and killers.”
Indeed, the room was filled with evil looking men and women, all armed to the teeth and all focused with iniquitous intent on Sirs Nicolas, Pierre, Alexandre, and Henri.
Heroine “What shall we do? They’re outnumbered five-to-one!”
Without warning, Jacques lifted me and thrust me into a nearby barrel, jamming the lid on tight as an extra measure to ensure my containment.
Jacques “You shall wait here in perfect safety, Highness . . . “
(He did not just stuff me into a barrel!?)
Jacques “. . . while I contribute to the negotiations within.”
The clash and clatter of battle soon broke out from inside the tavern, but I was too busy seeking escape from my oaken prison to give it my full attention.
I applied my strength to the barrel lid, pushing and prying in ways that no one would have called “ladylike.”
My motivation to escape was fueled by the stench of sour wine that permeated the timber from which the barrel was made.
(I shall suffocate in here if I’m not free soon!)
The sounds from within the tavern began to subside. My friends were either dying or victorious and all I could think was . . .
(I shall never drink wine again!)
The barrel-lid flew open with a final great push, striking someone who, in the same moment, had emerged from the tavern’s rear door.
(Who did I strike? One of them, or one of us?)
In my haste to climb free, I somehow set the barrel atilt. Losing my balance, I dropped back inside as it fell to its side and began to roll . . .
. . .thus completing the job of subduing the fleeing personage so recently struck by the barrel’s lid by rolling over him entirely.
The barrel shattered against a stone wall, allowing me to finally stumble free.
Once reoriented, I grabbed the barrel lid and moved toward the fellow my barrel had just overrun.
(He looks quite the blackguard. I do hope he is one of the villains!)
Jacques and Henri chose that moment to burst into the alleyway in pursuit of the quarry I had just brought low, however inadvertent the victory.
Henri “Highness! Are you . . . well, what have we here?”
The image greeting the knights must have struck them powerfully, for I stood as though triumphant over my fallen foe, barrel lid at the ready.
Jacques “It appears her Highness has freed herself from my hasty prison and felled the worst villain of the bunch!”
(This man was the leader of the band of thieves? And they think I defeated him? Well . . . let them.)
Heroine “Indeed, he proved a vexation for a moment, but my trusty barrel lid soon made short work of him.”
Jacques “One shudders to think what she might do with a sword. Best watch yourself with this one, Henri.”
Henri “I shall certainly re-evaluate my earlier estimation of you, Highness. Most formidable!”
Sir Nicolas, Pierre, and Alexandre emerged into the alley on that instant, taking in the scene before them.
Alexandre “All is done inside. We could fill the gaol with these malefactors . . .by the stars . . . what — ?!“
The explanation produced exclamations of wonder from all but Pierre, who wore an attitude of having known all along of my exceptional qualities.
None, therefore, noticed as the chief of thieves stirred, evaluated his predicament, and drew a long pistol from the waistband of his breeches.
Rising from the ground, he aimed it at me, suspending me in place with the threat.
A shot rang out.
The villain screamed, his hand bloody from the shattering of his pistol. Jacques stood a dozen paces away, a single barrel of his own pistol smoking.
Thief “Aggh! Bloody, interfering — ! I’d be ‘arfway to Riveaux Wood by now, ‘tweren’t for this Amazon! And you! Wha’d you ‘arfta shoot me ‘and off for?”
Jacques “Were you not about to shoot our Amazon, you toad?”
(Their Amazon, eh? Hardly a liberation, but it is progress.)
I then brought the villain to an unconscious state with a sharp blow of my barrel lid.
Alexandre “A most effective weapon.”
All looked at me with a new respect.
Nicolas “It appears my plan to stay a night in Hamlin was not a stroke of genius. Round up this lot. I shall fetch the sheriff, though I doubt ‘twill do much good . . . “
Nicolas “. . . there is little by way of law in Hamlin, or so I’m told. Likely they’ll all be free by morning.”
Location: Woods near Hamlin (Exterior) (Night)
Some time later, we established a camp on the edge of the woods. It was a chill night and Sir Nicolas insisted the fire be kept low.
Nicolas “Each of us four will take a shift as sentinel. Sir Jacques, you shall sleep in the carriage with Her Highness. Your pardon, m’lady . . . “
Heroine “As you say, Sir Nicolas.”
The knight heaved a small sign of relief, but not so small that I did not notice.
Heroine “This night, and perhaps for every night of our journey hereafter, we operate under the death-‘round-every-corner clause of the social contract.”
Heroine “I will not, in other words, balk at such minor breaches of etiquette as having to share quarters with a knight.”
Henri “May I take it that means you will share the carriage or a room with me at some point, Highness?”
Heroine “If the others bind your hands and seal your mouth, perhaps.”
The knights laughed well and long at this sally.
(I feel I am indeed their Princess now. I cannot regret my small deception today, for it has bound them to me with new respect.)
On the morrow, we embarked for the city of Nicoisę, but the Great Maze Forest lay in our path it seemed and there was some concern about that.
Excusing myself, I made my way to the carriage to sleep. As I approached, I heard Jacques’s voice, a soft murmur, from within.
Jacques “. . . with a barrel lid . . . who’d have thought . . . “
(He talks in his sleep! And it seems, he dreams of me!)
Jacques filled the floor. This left the cushioned seat to me, where she also found a neatly folded blanket and pillow.
(A gesture of charity from Sir Discourtesy himself! Wonder-upon-wonder!)
It was a very pleasant night’s sleep – the first such since leaving my village.