Britomart and Belphoebe


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Artos and Christiana

    Britomart stopped her work in her family’s vegetable garden and turned to watch the sun slowly slip below the mountains in the distance. The few clouds in the sky glowed with pink, purple and orange brilliance just before darkness wrapped the countryside in a soft embrace. She sighed contentedly, life was good, if lacking the excitement every fourteen year old girl looks for.

    Brit’s reverie was broken as a chicken came darting out of the Kale, ran across her foot and into the cabbages. The hen stopped momentarily to pluck an insect off one of the heads, then it let out a squawk and took off hurriedly. Brit had just enough time to wonder what had frightened the bird before a small, but solid body crashed into her from behind, sending them both tumbling into the carrot patch.

    “Stupid bird,” Belphoebe untangled an arm to shake her fist in the direction the bird had fled in.

    “Get off of me!” Britomart shoved her younger sister to the side, stood and pulled a crumpled cabbage leaf out of her dark curls.

    It was too dark to survey the full extent of the damage, but Brit was pretty sure there would be a shortage of carrots this winter. She narrowed her slate grey eyes in frustration at her sister. “Why were you chasing a chicken through the veg patch, and why didn’t you look where you were going?”

    There was just enough light left for Brit to see her sister grin. “I was going to cast a spell,” Belphoebe stood and dusted herself off.

“A what? There’s no such thing as magic.”

“Sure there is. Old Granny Hatch told me all about it this afternoon. If I take a black hen up to the top of the barrow hill tonight, hold it above my head and turn three times widdershins while chanting, “ Bel paused, finger twisting a red-gold curl, “...oh rats, I forgot the words to the spell.”

Britomart sighed with exasperation, closed her eyes and focused on staying calm. “Granny Hatch was just telling you an old story. Go try to catch the black hen and put her in the coop before a fox eats her. I’m going inside, it’s dark and I’m hungry.”

“I’ve got her,” a deep voice interrupted from the darkness punctuated by soft clucking.

“Papa! Please don’t be mad at me. It was an accident I swear,” Bel plead.

    “Mmmhmm,” answered a skeptical paternal grunt. “Go wash up for dinner, your mother sent me to fetch you both. We’ll sort this out in the morning after I’ve had a chance to see just how much damage was done to our vegetable crop. In the meantime, I’m sure an offer to clear up after the meal would not go amiss.”

    Britomart watched her sister scamper off toward the puddle of light spilling from the open kitchen door. “Was I that annoying when I was twelve?” she asked her father earnestly.

    “Don't call your sister annoying.” Arthur paused, adjusting the chicken gripped under his left arm. "Every twelve year old can be trying in their own way, it's a difficult age. You, my duaghter,” Arthur reached out his free arm to pat her on the shoulder, "I swear sometimes you were born an old woman. I'm not sure you were ever twelve," he said, and walked into the darkness toward the chicken coop.

*    *    *

    Later that night after the dinner had been eaten, the dishes done and the last of the farmyard chores completed, the family sat together around their hearth. Crysogonee, the girls' mother hummed quietly to herself while working on a piece of embroidery. Britomart and her father both had their noses in books, and Belphoebe sat on the rug looking bored.

    "Tell us the story of the lady and the prince Papa!" Bel interrupted the quiet of the room.

    Arthur slowly looked up from his book and surveyed the room, all eyes were upon him. "Alright," he closed his book and set it aside. 

    "There once was a beautiful lady named Christiana from Glasfor. This was back in the days when Glasfor and Miathail were trying to broker peace. Christiana was the daughter of Glasfor's ambassador, Lord Ghrian who was nephew to the king of Glasfor. Now, ordinarily ladies would not be in attendance at peace summits during times of war, but Lord Ghrian felt so certain that the negotiations would end in peace that he brought his daughter along as a sort of symbol. You see, traveling with a woman is traditionally a sign that you're not looking for a fight because ladies don't fight.

    "Except for Brit and me, you're teaching us to fight," Belphoebe interjected.

    "It's Brit and I Bel, mind your grammar." Crysogonee scolded gently.

    "Sorry, then why are you teaching Brit and I to fight? We're girls, and you just said girls don't fight."

    "Well yes, that's typically true, but I want the two of you to be able to defend yourselves if you ever get into trouble," Arthur smiled. "Besides, I thought you liked practicing your sword-work. Now, where was I?"

    "Ladies don't fight," Bel chimed in helpfully.

    "Ah yes, bringing a woman along is traditionally a sign that you're not feeling...aggressive. So, full of optimism, the Lord of Ghrian brought his beautiful daughter Christiana with him to the peace talks at the King of Miathail's court. There are many who say the Lord of Ghrian would have succeeded in his mission too, had certain events not transpired. 

    Now, the King of Miathail had a son named Artos. Artos was heir to the Miathail throne and was at the age where he was expected to start looking for a wife. The King and Queen of Miathail had introduced him to almost all of the eligible, well-bred ladies in the land hoping that one of them would strike his fancy. You see, there was an ancient tradition in Miathail that the royal family was only allowed to marry Miathailians, they were not allowed to marry anyone from outside the kingdom regardless of their noble standing. Artos, however, was not one to follow tradition and didn't care for any of the ladies his parents had thrown at him.

    On the third night of the peace talks things were going so well that the King of Miathail decided to throw a ball. All of the lords and ladies of the court attended, as did the peace delegation from Glasfor. Prince Artos was talking to a boring old gentleman and frantically trying to think of an excuse to move on to a more entertaining prospect when the Major Domo announced Lady Christiana Ghrian of Glasfor. 

    Prince Artos looked up from his conversation to see the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. She was wearing a beautiful golden gown with green trim, the colors of Glasfor. Her long hair cascaded to her waist in soft flaxen waves, and her eyes were the color of the sky on a fine summer's day," Arthur paused for a moment to gaze lovingly at his wife.

"She looked like Mama," Britomart interjected.

 "Mmm, yes," Arthur cleared his throat and continued. "Artos excused himself from the tired old man's company and went to seek an introduction with this golden goddess.

    Christiana had also noticed the dashing Artos, with his short-cropped black hair and chiseled jaw. It didn't take long for the two young people to find their way to each other. When the music started Artos asked Christiana to dance and the two never left each other's sides for the duration of the ball. By the end they had danced nearly every dance together and had fallen madly in love with each other. 

    When the ball ended Artos escorted Christiana to her father and wished her a goodnight. As he was walking away he overheard Lord Ghrian scolding his daughter, "You are heading home first thing in the morning. I will not have my daughter seen mooning over the Miathail heir. You would do well to remember you are betrothed to a fine Glasforian nobleman. Just you wait until your mother hears about your behavior this evening."

    Prince Artos, visibly upset, headed toward his bedchambers where he was intercepted by his father's servant. He was to report to his father's private sitting room immediately. When the prince arrived at the sitting room his father, mother, and a young lady of the court were waiting for him. Artos searched his brain, but could not recall the lady's name. She stood, blushing and greeted him formally.

    "You asked to see me father."

    "Yes Artos, please have a seat next to Lady Cambina Noinin," the king gestured to the settee.

    "I trust you enjoyed the ball son," there was an icy tone to his mother's voice.

    "I did, very much. What is it you need of me? It is very late and I should like to retire," Artos forced a yawn and scooted a little bit away from Cambina who was scooting a little bit toward him.

    "We have decided it is time for you to be wed and we have chosen Cambina for your bride. The Noinins have been loyal to our crown for many generations and We would like to honor their loyalty with a royal match. The formal announcements will be made tomorrow and We shall hold a betrothal feast in two weeks' time," the king paused for a moment, waiting for his words to sink in.

    "Now, Lady Cambina," the king turned to the young lady, "We wanted to tell the two of you in person before the formal announcements were made. We trust you are in agreement with this arrangement. It is late and We're sure you are tired. Please retire to your chamber now as We have a few more things We would like to say to Our son this evening."

    The young lady, who could not be older than 15 or 16 years old blushed, stood, curtsied and left the room without uttering a word. Artos sat unmoving on the settle, not believing what had just transpired. The queen sat in her great wing-back chair, cold as ice. 

    The king waited until Cambina had left the room before turning on his son, "What were you thinking?" his voice boomed. "Spending the entire evening with that Glaforian girl. Do you know how many good Miathailan ladies were waiting for a chance to have just one dance with you? Ladies who are eligible choices for you? Instead you chose one of Our enemies to spend the entire evening with and slighted Our loyal lords. It is time for you to grow up and start acting like the future king of Miathail."

    Artos waited, saying nothing while his father ranted, face turning slowly more and more red. "Father, you can't do this, you can't make me marry Lady Cambina. For one thing she is far too young; she's at least five years younger than me. Besides that, I'm in love with another!" the words slipped out before he realized what he was saying.

    The king and queen gasped simultaneously. "Who are you in love with? It couldn't possibly be that Glaforian girl, you only just met her," the queen exclaimed.

    "Yes, her name is Christiana and it is she whom I am in love with. Please let me marry her. In doing so you will cement the peace between our two peoples and finally put an end to this war," Artos paused, proud of himself for making a political argument for his personal desires.

    "No!" the king boomed. "You will marry the Lady Cambina and that Glasforian girl will be asked to leave Our kingdom first thing in the morning. What was Lord Ghrian thinking bringing a woman to a political negotiation? I'm sure it was some Glasforian plot to turn your head and weaken Our negotiating position."

    The king and the prince continued to quarrel for some time after this while the queen looked on. Eventually the king grew tired of his son's arguing and banished him from his sight in a rage. Artos was only too happy to comply with his father's wishes, slammed the door on his way out and stomped off to his chambers in what can only be described as a huff.

    The prince paced the width of his sitting room fuming for a good while after the argument. Finally, an idea came to him and he summoned a servant. Hastily, he scribbled a note, intricately folded the paper and handed it to the servant. "You are to deliver this directly in to the Lady Christiana's own hand. Do not allow one of her maids to accept it on her behalf and for Gods' sake do not read it. Wake her if you must. Do you understand me?" The servant nodded timidly, the prince's tone being quite sharp.

    When the servant left the prince continued to wait quite impatiently for what seemed like an eternity. He briefly considered the myriad distractions available in the room. There were books, a chess game he had been playing with himself for the better part of a week, and his desk could certainly use a good tidying. He lacked the patience for any of them and so continued his pacing. 

    Finally, there was a soft knock at the door, and the servant returned, reply in hand. "What took you so long?" Artos snatched the paper from the servant and began unfolding it.

    The servant murmured some excuse for his tardiness, but the prince was not listening. His eyes were glued to the message in his hands. He read it five times before letting out a breath, realizing as he did that he had been holding it in the entire time. It took every ounce of self-control he had to remain calm, thank the servant for his late night service and send him to his bed. Just as the door closed the prince let out a whoop of happiness and began to prepare.

    The next morning several curt messages were exchanged via note between the King of Miathail and the Ambassador of Ghrian. The two were definitely in agreement that Christiana should return home to Ghrian immediately, but they parted ways when it came to the reason her hasty departure was necessary. Both fathers felt that only the other's offspring was not a suitable match for their own and to propose the opposite opinion was quite offensive.

    Artos came down to the carriageway to wish Cristiana farewell and safe journey. By now the entire castle was abuzz with the news of the seemingly star-crossed lovers, so all eyes were upon them. Their goodbyes were quite chaste and formal, much to the disappointment of the servants. Just as the carriage was about to drive off the prince presented Lady Christiana with a leather-bound book of love poetry to remember him by. Then he turned abruptly and headed for the stables, not looking back to see his lady love and her entourage speed away.

    "And just where do you think you're going," the king's voice boomed behind Artos as he tightened the final strap on his horse's tack.

    "I'm going out for a ride. I need to clear my head," he did not turn to face his father.

    "Very well, just make sure you're back in time for supper. We're having dinner with the Noinins, I expect you to make a good impression," the king turned and left the stables, not waiting for an answer.

    "I'm sure the Noinin's are very nice people, but I don't want to marry their daughter," Artos whispered to his horse. He then checked to make sure the stables were empty before climbing the ladder to the hayloft. After a few moments of rifling through the haystacks he pulled out a travel sack and saddle bags, all stuffed full. Checking again to make sure he wasn't being watched, Artos scurried down the ladder and quickly tied the bags to his horse's saddle. Then he slipped into the next stall where a beautiful dapple-grey mare saddled, bridled and also had a very full set of saddle bags.

    Artos led both horses out of the stables and headed toward the postern gate. Just as he suspected, all of the servants had been at the front of the castle, hoping to see a dramatic parting of the two lovers. None of them had been in a hurry to return to their work, so the gate was deserted. Once safely outside the castle walls Artos mounted his great white charger, tied the mare’s reigns to his saddle and headed off into the forest surrounding the castle.

    About an hour or two after they left the castle, Christiana ordered her carriage to halt. "Driver, you are driving too fast around the curves of the road and I am feeling quite unwell," Christiana called as she headed toward the trees.

    "Where are you going My Lady? I should accompany," one of her maids, Jane, began to follow.

    "No, do not follow, I am quite ill and do not wish anyone to see me be sick. Stay where you are, I shall return when I am feeling a little better."

    Jane eyed the woods, looked down at her fine silk slippers, and protested no further. If her lady wanted to ruin her fine shoes and gown she was welcome to it, her father could replace them easily. Servants only got new gowns and shoes once per year. A half hour later Jane had changed her tune, but by then it was too late, her mistress was gone.

    "Clever of you to leave instructions for our rendezvous in the book," Christiana smiled at Artos from the back of the dapple-grey mare.

    "Clever of you to find them. Oh I'm so glad you agreed to run away with me," the prince grinned back.

    The prince and the lady were never seen or heard from again. Some say they were eaten by wolves, others that one father or the other had them both killed. Some say they were seen along the Ban river, headed for the Siochana. 

    "Papa, we live in the Siochana valley," Bel piped in.

    "That we do little one," her father mussed her hair. "What do you think happened to them?"

    "I think you and mommy are the prince and the lady," Bel giggled.

    "That would make you and your sister princesses. Wouldn't that be something? Alas, we're only a poor farming family." Arthur smiled.

    "It's time little princesses got to bed. They have early chores in the morning and it's quite late," Crysogonee interjected.

    "Yes Mama," both girls said in unison. They kissed each of their parents goodnight and scrambled up the ladder to their sleeping loft.

*    *    *

    Hours later, when the fire was burning low and the soft sounds of children's snores serenaded the room from the loft above, Crysogonee set aside her embroidery, stood and walked to her husband's side. She lovingly ran her fingers through his hair and smiled down at him.

    "You really should've done a much better job at changing the names in that story."

    "I know dear, but they have to find out some day."

    "Yes someday, but for now they are too young. It's dangerous knowledge. The last word we heard of your father was that he very ill. Were he to die the search would begin anew for his heir, and his heir's heirs. They could get caught up in a treacherous political game they are not prepared for."

    Arthur did not respond, instead taking his wife's hand. The two of them stared silently into the dying fire, each lost in contemplation. 

Comment Log in or Join Tablo to comment on this chapter...
Sara Peterson

Thanks! I'll definitely note that when I start editing. :)

Philip Overby

Some comments if you don't mind. :)

I really like the beginning of this. Both sisters have distinctive voices already and have a friendly rivalry. I loved the part with Bel saying she was going to cast a spell but forgot how to do it. Great characterization there. One thing I noticed is that you're sometimes using actions as dialogue tags. Meaning you use a comma instead of a period. For example, "Alright," he closed his book... It's a minor thing, but just wanted to point that out for when you do edits. Like this a lot so far. Good luck! P.S. Gave you a 'like!"

Sara Peterson

Constructive criticism is welcome. :)


    The mid-morning sunlight filtered through the forest canopy dappling the leaf litter below. Here and there patches wildflowers thrust their brightly colored heads upward, vying with the thick undergrowth for sunlight. Little birds sang and flitted about filling the forest with their song. 

    Britomart's heart pounded loudly in her ears. She was working hard to control her breathing, but the adrenaline flooding her system was making it difficult. Standing absolutely still, she closed her eyes and focused on her heartbeats, counting them until they slowed. Her body once again under her control, Brit continued moving silently through the forest. Even the rabbit nibbling on a patch of grass was not startled by her passing.

    Brit came around a large tree and there he was. The great red stag raised his head, sensing something. A beam of sunlight caught the velvet on his antlers, glowing like a great forked halo. He took a few steps, wary of predators, sniffing the air cautiously. 

    Slowly and silently Britomart knocked an arrow and drew her bowstring back. Once again she began to count her heartbeats. The deer turned his head suddenly and looked directly at her. Their eyes locked and time stood still for what felt like an eternity, but was only half a heartbeat. Then, the spell broken, the stag moved suddenly as if to flee, but it was too late. He fell with a great crash, startling the birds above into a frenzy of chaotic squawks and frantic flight toward safety. Then, just as suddenly, stillness fell upon the wood.

    "Very good daughter," Arthur's voice was quiet behind her. 

    "Thank you papa," She paused for a moment. "Do you think it hurt? When the deer died." she began walking slowly toward her prize.

    Arthur reached the stag in a few strides and examined it critically. "No, I don't think it hurt," he pointed to her arrow, projecting from the deer's chest. "See where you struck him? Directly through the heart. He died instantly and felt no pain. This is what we call a clean kill and what you want every time. We hunt to nourish ourselves and our family. It is best if our quarry feels as little pain as possible when giving their life to feed us."

    Brit sniffed, blinking back faint tears, "I'm glad."

    Arthur smiled at his daughter, patting her shoulder gently. "It's hard to kill your first deer. They are beautiful creatures, but this stag will feed our family for quite some time. Now come, let's thank him for his sacrifice, clean and truss him and bring him home to your mother and sister."

*    *    *

    Arthur and Britomart paused when they reached the hill above the family's farmstead. They looked down on the river winding its way idly through the countryside. Here and there green meadows stretched out between wooded patches. The hills were alive with color. Bright orange poppies and purple lupine danced in the breeze. A glorified path the family referred to as a "road" followed the riverbank  and continued past the farm to a small village just visible on the horizon.

    A few sheep and cows peacefully chewed grass alongside the family horse, a large grey roan named Stormy. Chickens darted through the vegetable patch, hunting for bugs while pigs took dust baths in their pen. At the edge of the farm, under an oak tree, bees buzzed busiliy in and out of their beegums. Crysogonee hummed to herself while she hung up the washing to dry and Belphoebe was in the veg patch weeding. A plume of smoke rose lazily from the summer kitchen, a lean-to built on the back of the house for cooking in the summer.

    Arthur hefted the deer on his shoulder and started down the hill, Britomart following on his heels. When they reached the edge of the yard Crysogonee and Bephoebe smiled and congratulated Britomart on her first successful deer hunt. Brit was a crack shot with a bow and had been bringing home small game for years, but this was the first thing larger than a rabbit she had killed.

    Crysogonee ushered her husband and daughter toward the curing shed. "Lay it out on the table and I'll show her how to skin it. Then we can hang it up to age."

    After depositing the deer in the curing shed Arthur came back out into the yard, the sound of his wife's instruction continuing behind him. Belphoebe had picked up a wooden sword to practice her forms, face set in concentration. Arthur strolled up behind her and laid a hand on her shoulder causing her to pause mid-movement.

    "Life is grand isn't it?" Arthur smiled, patting his youngest on the shoulder.

    Britomart sniffed, "It's kind of boring." She poked the dirt with her sword.

    Arthur looked down at her, one black eyebrow raised, "Just yesterday I heard you say those exact words. What's changed?"

    "I don't know. I just feel...restless. Like something's happening out there in the world that I'm supposed to be a part of, but instead I'm here tending chickens," Bel gestured to the family's small flock.

    "You don't know how good you have it little one. You're free to run and play in the forest to your heart's content. You've never wanted for food and you have a family who loves you very much. There are many in this world that would kill for just one day of your boring life."

    Belphoebe nodded, "Maybe so, but how will I know how good I have it if I've never experienced anything different? I love our house and you and Mama and even Brit, but..." she paused, "I just can't shake the feeling that there's so much more out there waiting for me. That I have a destiny."

   Arthur shook his head, "You may indeed have a destiny, possibly even a great one. I too have the same unsettling feeling that change is headed our way, and I doubt that change will be as good as you imagine, Just promise me one thing ok?" he looked down into her bright green eyes, the mirror image of his wife's. "Promise me you'll enjoy your life here as long as you can. Promise me you'll make the most of your childhood before it's gone."

    "I'll do my best Papa."

    Just then the door to the curing shed burst open and Crysogonee emerged with a platter of fresh venison steaks, Britomart following on her heels. "I hope everyone is hungry because we have fresh meat for dinner tonight," Crysogonee paused, looking from her husband to her youngest daughter. "What's going on out here, you both look so serious."

    "Nothing Mama, Papa and I were just practicing," she waved her wooden sword. "I'll go pick us some veg and corn to go with the steaks,"

*    *    *

    A late spring heat wave made most of the valley, and especially the family's cabin unbearably hot. The breeze off the river was the coolest place for miles around. Arthur had built a picnic table on the riverbank years ago, so the family headed there to enjoy their venison, fried tomatoes and fresh corn. There was a salad of fresh greens and cucumbers, dressed with apple cider vinegar. Dessert was a large bowl of blackberries and an ewer of fresh cream. 

    "We may be having a picnic, but that's no excuse for poor manners girls. Sit up straight and use your utensils properly," Crysogonee instructed in a motherly tone.

    The girls quickly complied. Along with the survival and self-defense training their father had been giving them since they could walk, their mother had been instructing them in more ladylike pursuits. They received regular instruction in proper manners, poetry, history, embroidery, court dancing and singing. They even knew exactly how to behave if ever summoned to the king's court. Not that they ever thought they would, here on the edge of the frontier.

    "I hope the weather cools off soon," Britomart said between bites of her dinner.

    "Aye, it was sweltering even deep in the forest where the trees are too thick for the sun to reach the forest floor," her father mopped his sweating brow with his handkerchief.

    "Maybe after the dishes are all cleaned up we can go swimming," Belphoebe broke in hopefully.

    "Maybe, we'll see. Don't go swimming too soon after eating or you'll get cramps," Crysogonee replied.

    "Someone's coming down the road," Belphoebe jumped up from her seat excitedly.

    "Sit back down, we're still eating our meal," her mother scolded.

    "Yes Mama," Belphoebe sat, fidgeting with excitement.

    Visitors to the farm were rare. Usually the family would head into town when they were running low on supplies. They would spend time socializing with the villagers and then head home at the end of the day. When there were festivals or dances the family would always attend. Once a year Arthur would ask some of the villagers to help him bring in the wheat, and he in turn would help them with their fields. 

    The family continued their meal, pretending as if nothing were out of the ordinary. An unspoken hum of curiosity and excitement was palpable. Even Crysogonee, steadfast in her propriety, was fidgeting slightly, eyes only half on her plate. Arthur wondered if it wasn't time for the family to take another trip into town. 

    Finally, the mysterious figure rounded the last curve of the road and came into clear view. It was Allen, the Miller's lad. He stopped every fifteen feet to pick up a stone from the road and skip it across the river. When he came within hailing distance Arthur stood from his seat at the table.

    "Hello Allen, what brings you all the way out here on a hot spring evening?"

    "Papa sent me to tell you that a tinker's come to the village. Bring any pots or tools you need mending and he'll fix them right up for you. He said he can sing and play too, and he's planning on having a show tomorrow night if you want to come," Allen eyed the table with hungry eyes.

    "Please sit and have supper with us Allen. We have plenty to go around," Crysgonee smiled at the lad.

    Allen nodded and sat, grabbing an ear of corn and slathering it with butter before Arthur could return to his seat. Belphoebe was dispatched to the house to bring back an extra plate, flatware and mug for ale. Before long nothing was left on the table but empty dishes. Arthur leaned back in his seat and patted his full stomach.

    "The meal was very good ma'am," Allen grinned at Crysogonee.

    "Thank you dear. If you like you can take some venison home to your father, I'm sure he would appreciate it," Crysogonee said while stacking up the empty dishes.

    "Oh yes ma'am, we would be ever so grateful. Papa doesn't get out to hunt much with the mill bein' so busy this time of year. Speakin' of which, is it near time to bring your winter wheat crop in sir?" Allen turned to Arthur.

    "Just about. I was thinking I might see who could help me with the harvest when we go into town tomorrow to see the tinker."

    "I'd be happy to help sir. This would be my first year helping with the harvest, but Papa says I learn fast and I have a strong back," Allen puffed up his small, wiry frame.

    "Well then, I'd be glad of your help young man," Arthur patted the boy on the shoulder.

    "Let me help you with that," Allen jumped up from his seat to take a pile of dirty dishes from Britomart. "Just point me to where I'm s'posed to take them."

    "Follow me," Britomart scooped up another load of dishes and headed toward the house. "Bel, can you get the last of the dishes?"

    Belphoebe had been wandering off toward the riverbank, hoping no one would notice her and put her to work. There was no escaping now that Britomart had given her a direct request. With a heavy sigh she piled up the last of the dishes and followed the others up to the house.

    "That boy has his eye on our daughter," Crysogonee leaned over and whispered to Arthur once the children were out of earshot.

    "I noticed," Arthur grunted back.

    "Do you think it's wise to have him back to help with the harvest?"

    Arthur ran his fingers through his thick, black hair. "I don't know about wise, but at least we'll be able to keep an eye on him. Besides, I don't think she shares his interest."

    "What makes you say that?" Crysogonee moved around the table and sat next to her husband.

    "Just last week she told me she could never love a man who could not 'best her on the field of battle'. I doubt Allen knows the first thing about combat, while our daughter has had the first four years' of knight's training. By my reckoning she'd be a squire by now."

    "Except were we to still live in the world of knights and squires neither of our daughters would be allowed near the knight's training grounds. Girls aren't allowed. Remember?"

    "Oh, I remember, it's a shame, though."

    "Why's that dear husband," she snuggled up to him, laying her head on his shoulder.

    "Because when I was Bel's age one of the kitchen maids trounced me for stealing a pie from the larder. My knight's training did me no good that day. So I thought to myself, if a kitchen maid can best me, imagine what she could do with proper training."    

    They both burst into laughter at that. "And just what have you been having our daughters read. 'best her on the field of battle' indeed. I hope our daughters never come within a hundred miles of a field of battle," Arthur put his arm around his wife.

    "Do you have a problem with the classics? That gem came from 'The War of the Horses' from the tales of the Eastern Horselands. The Northern Horselord, had claimed the Southern Horselord's daughter as his prize for winning a great battle. The daughter was having none of it, though, and challenged the Northern Horselord to a duel for her freedom. I'm surprised you don't remember it, I'm sure your tutors would have had you read it when you were young."

    "Hmm, I don't remember it. Then again, I wasn't the most studious of lads. I recall pretending to read several classic books which my tutors thrust upon me, all the while drawing doodles on my blotter instead counting the hours until I could get outside to play."

    "Well at least we know Bel comes by her impatience honestly then."

    "Mmhmm," Arthur responded noncommittally. "Come on my dear, let's go see if the young ones need chaperoning."

*    *    *

    The next morning the family loaded a few pots and pans, some farm implements and the plow blade into a small wagon and headed for the village. A tinker coming to town was a big event in the rural communities on the outskirts of the kingdom. Not only could they fix pots and pans and sharpen knives, but they brought news of what was happening outside of the local community. This tinker was even more interesting because he also brought music with him.

    "Allen said the tinker has big news to share. He won't tell anyone what it is until tonight. He wanted to give all of the farmsteaders a chance to come into town to hear the news," Britomart chattered away walking next to the wagon.

    "I'm sure he just wants to get a larger audience for his show tonight. That way he's likely to get more money in his hat when it's passed around," Arthur snorted.

    "I don't know dear, maybe he does have big news. When the last tinker came through a year and a half ago he brought news that the king was ill. It's possible this big news is that the king has succumbed to his illness," Crysogonee looked worried.

    Arthur looked serious for a moment, dark brows knit in concern. "Could be, that certainly would be big news," his face suddenly lightened. "Let's hope it's not, though, eh. Maybe we've finally made peace with Glasfor and this long, bloody war is finally at an end."

    "Can we run ahead to the town Papa?" Belphoebe broke in. "The wagon is so slow and I want to see the tinker."

    "He's not going anywhere for a while. He has to mend all of the broken pots in the village and that will take him at least a week. But I see no harm in it so long as your sister goes with you. Brit, make sure she doesn't get into any trouble."

    "Yes Papa," Britomart called back as she and her sister took off down the road, racing to town.

    "If the news is that the king is dead we need to come up with a plan for what to do next," Crysogonee's tone was urgent. "Maybe we should return to the capitol. You're the only heir and there will be no one left to oppose our union any longer."

    "My mother is still there," Arthur frowned, "and my sister.

    "Yes, but they'll be so happy to see the prodigal son again. Did you ever think they might welcome us with open arms? It's been so long they must have forgiven you by now."

    "Could be they have, it's also possible they still harbor resentment at me for disappearing without so much as a note. What if they imprisoned you and the girls, or worse? I can't risk it. I also can't risk anyone coming to look for the king's heir if the news is that my father has passed away. My father's men would want to drag me back to rule, his enemies' would want to see me and my heirs dead. Either way you and the girls would be in danger."

    "Where would we go? The girls have known no other home and I love our farm," there were tears in her eyes.

    "Over the mountains to the Eastern Horse Lands."

    "The Eastern Horse Lands? We can't go there! It's not safe. I'd rather take my chances with your mother than the ruthless Horse Lords."

    Arthur was silent for a few moments, "I wouldn't be so sure of that if I were you. Let's wait to see what this tinker's news is before we make any hasty plans, eh? Maybe  it's peace after all."

    They rode the rest of the way to the village in contemplative silence. When they arrived they saw the tinker had set up his brightly colored wagon right in the middle of the central green. It was red with yellow trim and a bright purple awning. The tinker sat under the awning mending a pot while telling a story to a group of children. Britomart and Belphoebe were among the audience, as was young Allen. Arthur and Crysogonee exchanged knowing glances.

    In addition to mending things, the tinker also had a variety of goods for sale or trade. These were displayed on a table which folded out from the wagon. After parking their wagon at the end of a row of other similar conveyances, Arthur took his wife by the arm and led her to the table of goods. 

    "See anything you like?" he asked, picking up a silver necklace.

    "Oh Arthur, I don't need any more jewelry, I have more than enough already. The girls could each use a new pair of shoes, though," she bent down to look at the array of new and used shoes displayed beneath the table.

    "Bel can wear Brit's old shoes, but you're right Britomart needs new shoes. Those girls are growing like weeds. Leave the shoes for now, though. I want to get you a gift. We've been married for 16 years this week, and that's cause for celebration if there ever ones one."

    "Oh Arthur, you remembered our anniversary." Crysogonee hugged her husband.

    "Of course I did. Now pick out anything you like," he gestured to the table. 

    Crysogonee looked down at the table strewn with jewelry, hair combs, a few decorative mirrors and other assorted trinkets, seeing nothing which struck her fancy. Then she noticed the myriad, multi-colored scarves, shawls and ribbons tied to a rope strung from the wagon to one of the awning supports. Right in the center of the textiles was a fine merino wool wrap dyed the color of the sky on a fine summer's day. She took a few steps forward and touched it, it was soft to the touch like a cat's fur. 

    "It matches the color of your eyes," Arthur reached out to touch the shawl, and admired how it felt.

    "And that is how the ladybird came to be spotted," the tinker finished his tale and was greeted by an applause from the small group. "Don't forget to tell your friends to come to tonight's show. There will be more stories, singing and I'll announce the big news from the capitol city," the tinker stood, laying aside the pot he was mending.

    "I see you've been admiring my fine collection of textiles. Did this one catch your eye? It would look beautiful on you," the tinker came over to where Arthur and Crysogonee were admiring the shawl.

    "What will you take for it," Arthur interjected. "My daughter brought down a fine stag just yesterday, I could bring you some of the meat."

    The tinker smiled, "Meat is a rare treat I do not often get to enjoy, but no. For this I will accept only coin. One golden crown is the price for this fine shawl."

    Crysogonee gasped and immediately let go of the wrap, "That's far too much." Coin money was exceedingly rare this far out from any of the metropolitan areas of the kingdom. Most people bartered for what they needed. A few brave souls had gone to work in a larger town two days' walk away and came back with a few copper bits. A whole golden crown was a full years' wages for a working man in the city. 

    "That is a steep price sir. If I were to come up with a golden crown I'd ask for more than just the shawl for my dear wife. I'd need two pairs of shoes for my daughters there," Arthur gestured, "as well as the mending and sharpening of my pots and farming tools."

    The tinker paused at this, eyeing Arthur up and down as if inspecting a horse he was considering purchasing. "If you do indeed have a golden crown it's a deal, but what would a poor farmer like you be doing with that kind of money?"

    A few of the townsfolk who had been standing around listening to the tinker's story had taken notice of the exchange. They stared at Arthur curiously, doubtlessly wondering the same thing as the tinker. Arthur glanced around at the eager faces, and concentrated on keeping his face in check.

    "I am the youngest of Lord Seabhac's seven sons. By the time I came of age there was nothing for me to inherit, so my father gave me ten crowns and sent me out into the world to find my own way. I never much cared for the life of a noble or knight so I settled here in this valley to become a farmer. I never had much need of the money my father gave me so I've been saving it."

    A few of the townsfolk gasped, shocked to think that a noble had been living in their midst all this time unbeknownst to them. The tinker continued to eye him suspiciously. "Alright then, let me see what you have for me to mend and sharpen then."

    Arthur led the tinker to his wagon and showed him. Away from the prying ears of the townsfolk the tinker spoke sharply, "You're a terrible liar and I don't believe your story for an instant. Still, it makes no difference to me where you got a golden crown. As long as it's a true golden crown and not counterfeit you have a deal...Sir," the tinker held out his hand.

"I don't have it on me, it's hidden in a safe place. You can have it after the mending and sharpening are done. Also, you must swear to tell no one either that you suspect my story or that you got a golden crown off of a homestead farmer in the borderlands. Is that fair?"

    "Fine, but you can't have the shawl until I have the gold."

    "Sounds fair to me," Arthur held out his hand to the tinker. They shook on the deal, then returned to the center of the green.

*    *    *

    The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Britomart and Belphoebe spent the day running and playing with the other children of the village. They made daisy chain crowns with the other girls and played at being knights with the boys. Britomart won the mock tournament and crowned her sister the Princess of Summer Beauty after the fashion of the great tournaments in the cities. When the other girls complained this was unfair she instead crowned little Timothy Smith, the Blacksmith's boy who was simple. Timothy was delighted despite the continued outcry from the other children. Britomart spent the afternoon arm in arm with him playing at being a noble knight and fair lady. Britomart played the knight and Timothy was the lady.

    Crysogonee had joined a circle of women who were sewing a quilt for an expecting mother in the village. They sat in a circle and talked and sewed all the while keeping a watchful eye on the children. Crysogonee had embroidered two red roses entwined together on her square, to symbolize the great love the parents to be held for each other. The other ladies greatly admired her fine work.

    Arthur spent the day helping the men of the village raise a new town hall. The old one had been repaired many times over the years, but the great beams which supported it were full of termites, so it had been decided that it was time to rebuild. By the time the sun started to dip toward the horizon the frame was up. He agreed to return to help with the wattle and daub walls and thatch roof. In exchange several men offered to help bring in the family's wheat.

    Although everyone in the village made a point to stay busy throughout the day, an undercurrent of impatient excitement buzzed through the small community. When he wasn't enticing potential customers to purchase his wares, the tinker would entertain passersby with a story or a song. By the time the sun set there was a great bonfire in the center of the green, and the tinker had unfolded a small stage from the side of his wagon. Every farmsteader, trapper or forester in the greater community had come into town to hear the tinker's great news. 

    Everyone had brought food with them, and someone had the idea to set up a town-wide potluck on the green. The tavern lent the use of their tables, and all of the dishes were set out to share. The tinker was invited to share in exchange for his news and entertainment. He thought it would only be fair to participate, so he brought out a bag of oranges he'd purchased in the capital, a rare treat in this area of the kingdom.

    Finally when everyone had eaten, the tinker included, they all settled in around the fire, eyes glued to the little stage. The tinker set aside his plate, donned his his cloak, and ascended the step. A quiet murmur spread through the crowd as he sat in the rickety old chair on the stage and turned to face them.

    "I think we should begin with a song," the tinker began.

    "But you've been singing songs all day," called someone from the crowd.

    "Aye, but this song is relevant to my big news," the tinker grinned, reached behind the chair, and pulled forth his mandolin. His nimble fingers began to play a hauntingly alluring tune, then he began to sing.

    The tinker sang of a beautiful lady from a faraway kingdom, come to the king's palace for a great ball. There she fell in love with a handsome prince. The two promised to be true to each other forever, but their parents did not approve. It was the tale of Artos and Christiana, the one Arthur had told his girls many times over around the family's hearth. The whole town listened with rapt attention.

    When the song finished the tinker set his mandolin aside and cleared his throat. A few townsfolk clapped their hands in appreciation, but most were intent on finally hearing the big news. He took his time carefully placing the instrument back in its case, readjusting his cloak and getting comfortable in his chair. Then he cleared his throat a few times before someone in the crowd yelled, "Out with it tinker! What's the big news?"

    The tinker's face turned instantly from playful to sorrowful. "My song was not simply a delay to increase your anticipation of my news. It's clear that you need no help from me to be interested in what I have to share. No, my song was the tale of the king's son, missing these past sixteen years. By now I'm sure the tale of him running away with the beautiful lady from Glasfor has reached even this far," A few townsfolk nodded and a murmur of agreement ran through the crowd.

    "It is with a heavy heart that I must share with you that our beloved king has died," the tinker paused, letting his news sink into the crowd. Everything was silent, save the soft crackling of the dying bonfire.

    "The king left no heir save his prodigal son. Parties of knights have been sent to scour the lands for the prince so he may be brought home to rule. I've met a few of these groups on the road and promised I would spread word of their mission."

    "Who's ruling the kingdom now?" piped up a curious villager.

    "The late king's adviser and wife to his sister, Lord Busirane is acting as king regent until Prince Artos can be found and brought home."

    "What happens if he's never found," another voice in the darkness called out.

    "There are a handful of noblemen who have brought forth their claim to the throne, and Busirane has a good claim, being married to the king's sister. Their young son also has a claim. If the prince is not found, a tribunal of lords will be formed to review the claims and decide which is most worthy to inherit." 

"Oh, what does it matter?," A loud male voice muttered from the other side of the gathering. "It's not like the doings of the capital ever have anything to do with us."

"Hush Bertram, not all of us are as jaded as you old man," a woman's voice scolded.

    The back and forth of questions from the crowd, answers from the tinker and mutterings from the bored and disinterested continued for quite some time. The tinker seemed very knowledgeable about the ways of the royal house of Miathail. Britomart wondered how he knew all that he did. 

Quietly Arthur tapped each member of his family on the shoulder to get their attention. He motioned them away from the crowd, into the darkness on the other side of the remaining embers from the bonfire.

    "I think we've heard enough. It's late, we should be heading back."

    The family nodded in silent ascent, each lost in their own thoughts. Soon, their little wagon was headed down the road, their way lit by the moon and the stars. Britomart and Belphoebe lay in the wagon, staring up at the sky. 

Britomart's mind was full of thoughts. 'Was the tale her farther told the true story of how her parents met?' 'What did all of this mean?' 'Was her father really the errant prince of Miathail?' 'Was she a princess?' Lost in thought and lulled by the swaying of the wagon she fell asleep and dreamed of knights and ladies.

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