But now, here's the next part of "The Princess & I" for your enjoyment. (I know not all the parts are in the "Stories in Progress" page...I'm working on it. ;)
20: Tricks & Troubles
I was amazed at how well Malcolm and William fit into their roles, and how relaxed they seemed in the enemy’s own land. My heart jumped at every soldier that passed by, and fell through my stomach if any of them happened to glance in our direction. I was sure we would be stopped countless times, but no one bothered with the three travel-weary peasants that trudged through their marketplace.
We paid for stables and food for our horses, and continued through the market unhindered on foot. The busy streets enveloped us and people surged around me, each more busy than the last.
“Have your swords and knives sharp and ready! Two bits to make your old dagger as good as new!”
“Hot potatoes! Baked to perfection! Take one now while they’re still here!”
“Lovely trinkets for sale! Come and buy something for that special woman in your life!”
“Fat geese ready for butchering! Have a roasted fowl this Sunday evening to surprise your husband!”
The cries of venders and haggling men and women as they battled for the best price filled my ears. In our own village, market day was something I had always looked forward too, a day to be spent with friends and talking with familiar faces, but here it seemed utter chaos.
The trinket man grabbed hold of Malcolm and William when he spied me behind them. “Looking for something for the lady, gentlemen?” he asked eagerly. “I’ve got quite a few lovely things that she might fancy.”
Malcolm glanced at William, and then over his shoulder to me. I caught a twinkle in his eyes. He nodded briefly. “If you don’t mind, I’m sure she’d love to look at your things to see if there’s anything she wants.”
The man quickly pulled us over to his stand where all his items lay out on a rickety table. Malcolm motioned to the things and smiled. “Choose whatever your heart desires, Mary,” he said.
I accepted the new name without question. Obviously, he thought it was necessary. It might take some getting used to, but I could handle it. We didn’t know if the Duke knew who we were or not, but Sir Alfred knew, so it was better to be on the safe side.
“Thank you…” I hesitated a moment, my mind racing to come up with a boring, well-used name that would help his disguise. “…Arthur,” I finished, coming up with one that I heard everywhere.
Malcolm waited until the vendor wasn’t watching before giving me a swift nod of approval. I hoped that the man hadn’t noticed the second of hesitation. I turned to the table and pretended to take great interest in choosing something from the man’s wares.
Then I saw them. Five soldiers were headed in our direction. And it looked as if they had a purpose. My hands trembled as I fought to keep my eyes from betraying the fear I was feeling. Quickly glancing over the rest of the trinkets, I chose a silver necklace that had a delicate cross pendant hung from its beautiful chain and held it towards the man.
“I think I’d like this,” I said, willing my voice not to waver. While Malcolm haggled over the price, as was customary, I nudged William discretely and glanced towards the soldiers. His eyes widened and he tapped Malcolm on the shoulder.
Suddenly, an idea came to me. Before I could have enough time to reconsider, I let out a squeal and tugged on William’s cloak. “Oh, Fred!” I exclaimed, ignoring the startled and confused look my teacher gave me. “Look over there!” I pointed to a booth that sold scented pillows, soap, and perfumes which was conveniently far away from the approaching soldiers. “I’ve always wanted a scented pillow! Do get me one, please? I promise I won’t ask for anything else all of today!” I dramatically clasped my hands over my heart, hoping William would know to go along with my ridiculous behavior.
Malcolm shook his head helplessly, but there was a spark in his eyes that told me he understood. “Oh, go get her a pillow, Fred,” he said. “If we don’t she’ll badger us all the way home.”
The trinket man chuckled knowingly and so did a few of the people nearby who heard what had taken place.
Quickly, I pulled William towards the booth. “Fred?” he hissed. “That was the best you could come up with? I liked Arthur better.”
“I couldn’t very well call you both Arthur, now could I?” I giggled back. “I can only come up with so many names within a few moments. Anyways, I had to get us away from the soldiers and confuse them somehow. Sir Alfred must have told them to watch for strangers and question them.”
William was looking at me in admiration. “Well, you certainly thought of a solution a great deal quicker than Malcolm and I!” he exclaimed.
I blushed. “It was the only logical solution,” I answered airily, as if I wasn’t quaking inside.
Malcolm joined us at the booth and gave my hand a quick squeeze. The woman selling the pillows was still busy with a different costumer, so he took the opportunity to smile at me. “That was quick thinking, Meg,” he whispered. “Well done.”
I shrugged, hating all the praise. “Thank you,” I said simply. I was eager to have the subject change.
“She thinks Sir Alfred has alerted the Duke’s soldiers to search for and question strangers in the town. He suspects that we followed him,” William said quickly.
A frown crossed Malcolm’s face. “That will make our rescue job harder,” he muttered to himself.
“Is there a problem, sir?” The woman who owned the booth was standing in front of us now with a concerned look on her face.
Malcolm stiffened at the unexpected appearance, but kept his cover surprisingly well. “These pillows seem to be awfully expensive,” he glowered. “I wasn’t planning on spending a fortune at the market today, but my sister Mary insists upon having one. Do you have smaller ones?”
A relieved look came to the woman’s face and she smiled. “I do indeed, sir!” she answered, bustling over to another part of the stall. “Here, these ones are small enough to fit into your hand. The fine ladies fancy this kind the most, because they can put them in their wardrobe and their clothes will smell like lavender and pine without the use of expensive perfumes. The scent is very long-lasting, but can be taken out if you wash your clothing in vinegar.”
I took the pillow from the woman and inhaled the scent. Lavender calmed my highly-strung nerves, and the pine reminded me of the forests around my home. Tears stung my eyes, but I swallowed them back. I nodded at Malcolm. “This one would be lovely.”
My brother haggled the price down to something he “could afford” as a poor peasant, and we melted back into the crowd. The soldiers we had been trying to escape had given up on finding us and were lazily propped against the wall of the nearest tavern. We gave them a wide berth and continued up the road.
Passing into another part of the marketplace, smells assaulted my nose and it wrinkled in disgust. Pigs, horses, cows, sheep, and goats were being herded along the road to be sold to the highest bidder. Carefully, I kept my eyes downwards in the effort to keep myself from stepping in animal waste.
Malcolm and William called me to hurry and follow them, so I stepped faster around the disgusting piles. Dodging around stray dogs and loose livestock, I kept my eyes on the ground as a handful of soldiers made their way through the crowds. I allowed myself to be dragged by the crowd and past the soldiers, who paid a lowly peasant girl little mind.
It was because of this that I didn’t notice the change in buildings around me, nor the thinning of the crowds. When the road looked safely clean again, I looked up from the cobblestones only to see that I was completely alone. William and Malcolm were nowhere in sight.
Panic gripped my heart, and I quickly sank into the nearest shadow of a tall building. A few people hurried by on their way to the marketplace, but besides that, the street was strangely quiet. Raucous laughter came from somewhere nearby, and I nearly jumped from my skin when three men stumbled by my hiding place from the open door of a tavern I hadn’t noticed before.
They passed by so close that I could smell the rank ale on them. I squeezed the little pillow over my nose, letting the smells of lavender and pines drown out the other revolting scent.
Perhaps they caught a whiff of my pillow, or perhaps they heard my gasp of relief when I buried myself in the better smell, but whatever it was, the men came back, this time slowly and a little too sober for my comfort.
One of them saw me. He jerked me from the shadows and his face grew a wide smile that showed his crooked, stained teeth. “Oy!” he exclaimed to his friends in delight. “Look at what I’ve found!”
I slapped his hand away from my arm in a sudden burst of courage. “Don’t touch me!” I flashed angrily.
The men surrounding me burst into laughter.
“You caught yourself a lively one, Dick!” one of the other men chortled.
“Aye,” the first man agreed, his eyes narrowing at me. “It’ll be my pleasure to take her down a bit.”
I swallowed. Where were William and Malcolm? God, I prayed silently, help me to escape whatever these men think they’re going to do. Give me the strength to stand up to them.
One of the men ripped my cloak from my shoulders. I pulled away from their grabbing hands, suddenly realizing that Safeguard was at my side. As was God. Fire sparked my eyes, and a new courage rose from deep within me.
To the shock of the men who were bent on torturing me, I pulled my sword from its sheath and held it in front of me. “Like I said before,” I lowered my voice dangerously, “don’t touch me. You’ll regret it.”
For a moment, the men stood around me in stunned silence. Then, one of them chuckled nervously. “She can’t know how to use that sword,” he said, trying to convince himself just as much as the other men around him. “And she can’t fight all three of us.”
My jaw tightened. They didn’t know I had fought eight men who were completely sober with William by my side. If I could do that, with God by my side I could defeat an army. My hands gripped the hilt of my sword, and I faced the men as bravely as I could, daring them to come and fight.
As one, they pulled their own swords from their sheaths and came at me. I danced away from their blades, keeping myself out of corners so they couldn’t back me into a place where I couldn’t fight. One man came a little too close, and I thrust quickly into his side. He sank to the ground beneath a waterfall of curses.
I led the other two men far enough away from their friend so I didn’t have to worry about him finding the strength to join back in. I parried and thrust, warding off their countless blows and returning a few of my own. The swords flashed in the torchlight that lit the darkening street. Another man went down when I was able to throw his sword from him and slice his arm just enough to make him think twice before molesting any more girls.
The last man took one look at his fallen companions and ran away, looking back every once in awhile to make sure I wasn’t following him. As if I would do anything as foolish as that. I breathed a prayer of thanks heavenward as he left; glad to be alive, even though I was thoroughly exhausted.
I almost walked away, but a groan from the wounded man on the street touched the sympathetic part of my heart, and I knelt a safe distance away, glancing around to make sure no more of his friends came back. I sat gathering my breath and watched the rising a falling chest of my enemy. He was a middle-aged man with shoulder length, graying hair. Only a few wrinkles creased his brow however, and I put him at about twenty years older than my twenty-four-year-old brother.
“Go ahead and gloat,” he said finally, breaking the silence. “I’m sure I deserve it.”
I frowned. He had mistaken the reason for which I stayed. “I’m not here to gloat,” I answered, coming closer warily. “I want to help your arm.”
He looked at me in disbelief. “No, you don’t.”
I sighed, cleaning my sword with the cloth on my useless cloak that lay in the dirt, now too ripped and torn for me to wear. Sheathing Safeguard, I turned again to the man who was now sitting up, inspecting the wound.
“You didn’t kill us,” he said at last.
“I dislike killing when I don’t need to,” I answered shortly. “You and your friends were cowards enough to pick on a poor defenseless peasant girl, so I knew you’d be cowards enough to give up when you realized I wasn’t as defenseless as you thought.”
The man snorted his agreement to that statement, cradling his injured arm. “If I said I was sorry, would you believe me?” He looked up at me where I stood safely out of arm’s reach.
I studied his face for a moment. He had been the one man who hadn’t really said or done anything to me. The man with crooked teeth had a hole the size of my blade in his side and was several yards away, still muttering curses. He had been the first one I wounded on purpose because I saw at once he was the most vicious. The man who had run away was the one who had thought I didn’t know how to use my sword; he also was the one who pulled my cloak off my shoulders.
This man, however, simply stated that Dick had gotten himself into more than he could handle when he grabbed my arm. Of all of them, he was probably the least likely to harm me.
“You knew,” I said softly after a long silence.
The man dropped his gaze. “I saw your sword under the cloak. Dick didn’t. But I thought that the three of us could overwhelm you anyways.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Well, you couldn’t.”
“I realize that now,” he said. “What’s your name, girl? How did you learn how to use that blade?”
“I’m Me-Mary,” I answered, almost slipping and telling him my actual name. “I was taught how to fight by my brother and his friend. What’s your name?”
“Henry,” he answered. “I must say your brother and his friend did an excellent job teaching you.”
I knelt on the ground, my body still ready to jump and run at the slightest provocation. “Will you let me help you? You’re losing a lot of blood.”
He shrugged, but held out his arm. “Never met anyone who would heal the same person they wounded minutes before.”
“Well,” I smiled, ripping a few strips of cloth from the already ruined cloak, “I’m not like anyone.”
“I can tell,” he said ruefully.
Even though my hand occasionally strayed to my sword as if to remind myself that I could defend myself if Henry tried to hurt me, I wasn’t ever in danger. He kept his hands to himself and let me do what I wanted with his wounded arm, his eyes shut tight against the pain he undoubtedly was feeling.
I carefully cleaned the wound as best I could with what I had, and wrapped the laceration tightly with strips I cut with my sword from my old cloak. Once finished, I sat back on my heels and surveyed my handiwork.
Henry opened his eyes and slowly flexed his arm. He winced slightly. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. “That’s all I can do…it’ll need stitches.”
Henry struggled to his feet. “Can you stitch it up for me?”
My brow crinkled as I considered his question. “I can try. I’ve never done stitches before.”
“You’ve sewn though?”
I thought back upon the years of sewing I did for Malcolm and I in our cottage. A smile twitched the edges of my mouth. “Yes.” That was an understatement of the highest level.
“I have some things that will work if you’re willing to come with me to the inn just down the street where I’m staying.”
My heart wanted to trust him, to believe that he wouldn’t harm me…but my intellect knew better. “I’ll stay here,” I answered stiffly. “Your arm is well enough that you can go there and back with those things. I’m not following you to only God knows where.”
A spark of respect came into the man’s eyes and he nodded. “You’re smarter than I thought you were.”
I didn’t know exactly what to say to this, so I kept silent. Henry walked away. For a few minutes I was alone again, but this time, no one molested me. The sword in my hand warned away anybody who might put me I danger. It was a shield against the darkness that surrounded me.