Chapter Eight: A New Friend
A crash in the small hours of the morning startled me awake. I bolted from my warm covers in alarm only to see my brother standing sheepishly in the doorway, his foot poised in the air above a now-empty pail of milk and a boot in his hand.
“What happened?” I inquired while mopping up the mess from our floor.
“I set down the pail of milk for a moment so I could take off my boots, but then knocked it over because my boot gave me some trouble.” He sighed and regarded the guilty boot with a frown. “It’s always been hard to pull off, but I think it’s been getting worse this past month."
“I think my pies are making you fat,” I said impishly, then quickly ducked away before my brother could revenge himself with a playful slap.
“Your pies are good, but I don’t think they’re to blame,” Malcolm answered. He rubbed his stomach thoughtfully, and then shook his head. “It’s not fat, it’s muscle.”
I laughed and rolled my eyes in obvious disbelief. “Of course.”
Malcolm came over while I made our milk-less breakfast and gave me the slap I undoubtedly deserved along with a pinch on my cheek and a brotherly hug. “I’m sorry to have awakened you, I was going to go to the castle by myself this morning so that you could get the few extra hours of beauty sleep before following me with your belongings you think you might need during your stay with Chris.”
I smiled. “Thankfully, I’m not in need of beauty sleep. However, I may need some extra time to get the things I’ll need packed. I wasn’t able to do that yesterday.”
“You won’t mind traveling to the castle alone?”
“I don’t mind. I enjoy rides on Duke in the quiet of the early morning. Let Chrystal know that I may be a little late.”
Malcolm nodded as he finished his meal. “She’ll understand.” He swallowed his last bite and stood, belting on his sword and pinning his cloak to his shoulder. With one last cheerful wave he left me standing alone at the doorway of our cottage.
I watched him until he disappeared, then walked back into our home with a sigh. I had packing to do.
* * * * *
Finally it was completed. I looked over my work with a satisfied smile. Duke stood patiently still with all my bags of girlish necessities piled on his back. There was barely room for me to sit, but I was loath to leave anything behind. Practically all of my possessions were carefully packed into the three bags that adorned my noble steed. Lastly, I strapped on my sword and threw my cloak over my shoulders. Now I was ready to face another day.
The ride to the castle was beautiful. It was light out now, unlike when I had first been rudely awakened, but dew still sparkled in the early sunlight. I munched on my own breakfast, trusting Duke to following the worn path to the castle’s gates, and threw some of the crumbs to the birds, which followed me in that hope.
I was greeted at the castle doors by a new stable boy. He looked vaguely familiar, as if I had met him before. To satisfy my curiosity, I asked his name.
“I’m Steven Price,” the sandy-haired boy replied with a cheerful smile. “I just got hired to work as a stable boy.” Noticing my hesitation, he added, “Don’t be concerned about your horse, I take good care of animals…horses in particular. Gerhard, he was the old stable boy, is too old and now I have taken his place.”
“How old do you have to be before you’re ‘too old’ to be a stable boy?” I asked next.
“Well, when you’re old enough to become a squire, many boys prefer that to being a mere stable boy. But not me. At least, not for a while yet. I prefer being with horses personally.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You prefer horses to fighting? That’s certainly a rare thing in boys. May I ask why?”
The stable boy shrugged. “I like animals.” He paused and grinned. “Naturally I like fighting too, but my mother told me I’m still too young to become a squire anyways, so it doesn’t really matter which I like better.”
“Would you become a squire if your mother allowed it?”
“Maybe. But I don’t need to make that decision yet. I’ve got years yet before I have to worry about that.” He smiled up at me. “Is the interrogation over now? Do I qualify as good enough to look after your horse for you?”
I couldn’t help but return the hauntingly familiar smile. “Yes, you’re quite qualified. I need to take these bags into the castle, but once that’s done you’re welcome to take him off my hands.”
Steven gently rubbed Duke’s muzzle. “He’s a handsome boy alright. What’s his name?”
“Duke,” I answered. “Not my choice—my brother named both our horses—but I think the name fits him.”
“I think so too. Shall I find someone to help you with your bags?”
I shook my head. “Thank you, but no. I’m sure I’ll be able to carry them myself.”
The stable boy gave the three over-stuffed bags a doubtful look, but shrugged to himself and led my horse to the castle stables. This left me and my belongings standing just outside the castle doors. I took a deep breath, hefted the bags over my shoulders and staggered past the amused guards.
Just inside, I felt someone lift the bags from my shoulders with a disapproving sound. “You should have asked for help.”
“I was doing just fine,” I said rubbing my sore shoulder. “But thank you for your help William.”
“What were you talking to my brother about?” my teacher asked while walking down the long hall to where he knew the princess would be waiting.
“Your brother? I didn’t talk to a brother of yours!” I instinctively glanced backwards.
William smiled. “Yes, you did. The stable boy.”
I stopped in astonishment for a moment. Replaying the conversation with the new stable boy, I finally realized what I should have known all along. “That’s why he has the same last name as you!” I exclaimed. “That would also explain why he looked somewhat familiar.”
“I thought you already knew he was my brother,” William added. “You seemed comfortable talking with him.”
I shrugged. “He was easy to talk to. Besides, he shares something in common with me.”
“We both love horses,” I finished.
“He certainly does,” William agreed. “Horses have been his passion since he was four years old.”
“How old is he now?”
“Fourteen.” William stopped in front of the princess’s chambers and placed my bags carefully on the stone floors. “Are you planning on having your lesson today at the usual time?”
I nodded. “I wouldn’t want to miss it.”
“I’ll be seeing you soon then.” With that, my teacher walked back down the hall and disappeared around a far corner.
I turned back to the door and knocked on it gently. Princess Chrystal ushered me in with a smile and helped me carry my bags over to the next chamber where she had arranged for me to stay when the men had left.
“There.” The princess looked around her with an air of satisfaction. “Make yourself at home…at least, as much at home as you can be somewhere that’s not actually your home.”
I glanced over at her with a smile. “Thank you. I really do appreciate your kindness in letting me stay here while Malcolm was gone. I was worried to be in our cottage by myself.”
Princess Chrystal waved away my thanks. “Oh hush! I’m the one who should be thanking you! After all, I don’t think I could have survived being here in the castle alone.”
“Thank you all the same,” I repeated.
“Do you need my help putting your things away?”
I looked around and shook my head. “I think I can manage. Thank you for your offer.”
“You’re welcome of course. Let me leave you to your unpacking in peace.”
The door separating our rooms was shut and I was left to my own devices. I stared at the closed door for a moment, then shook my head and began the long unpacking process.
I was going to be living in the castle, next to a princess, and at the king’s request. It would take some getting used to.