The princess was restless among the little men. They liked her well enough, and were quite good at offering their hospitality and endeavoring to meet her needs. Nonetheless, the little cottage was a cramped and crowded home, and she yearned for more. She was a princess – she wanted grandeur. Or perhaps she wanted freedom, to ride galloping fast and hard across an open plain with the wind streaming across her face. What she wanted – though, at fifteen, she couldn’t know it yet – was the sweep and fervor of first love, and she was fated to avoid it if she stayed cooped in a cottage with a handful of little old men.
She’d never listened, intent, to stories as a child. She’d read the fairytales all on her own, and had turned away if the queen opened a book. The stories she read were beautiful, and solemn, and she dreamed of the formal and grand procedure of love. The quest, and the tower, and the dragon slain with a glowing sword lying scaly and sinuous but dead at the feet of the beautiful maiden. She longed for that – she’d never been told that anything else existed, and very probably she wouldn’t have believed it. Perhaps the queen would have dreamed with her, would have read the fairytales and sighed over the story of the knight with her stepdaughter, but very likely if that were the case the princess might have noticed that not every princess marries a king and lives with a happily ever after. It would not have occurred to her that the queen was unhappy, except that the queen was unhappy with her. As a child, it is too difficult to look past pain to see someone else’s. In fact, most people are children like this for much of their lives, and the princess had nobody to teach her that hard lesson, of learning the pain of others. She couldn’t reach it on her own. She was a princess, and she was beautiful and brilliant, and sad. She wasn’t very good with people.
So she stayed in the cottage, with the little men, and she cooked and cleaned with the rest of them, and taught them to do laundry – it was disgraceful, really, when she discovered the state of their linens – and got on with the practicalities of life in the forest. She of course hadn’t any clue how to do menial tasks like laundry. She was a princess. For that, though, she was determined, and she figured out the laundry and the cooking, the sturdy sewing and the scrubbing. She learnt it well, and she taught the little men until she could delegate, and send a few of them around the house under her orders. She was a princess, after all.
There wasn’t really much else for her to do, anyway, and so she focused on that. She couldn’t keep her mind from wandering, though. When she stood at the sink with her hands stinging in the heat of the water, the pot heavy, it was easy to daydream of a happily ever after.
The queen had retreated into herself, into her corner of the castle, away from the world. She would deal with the business of the kingdom – a fair amount of it fell to her, at this point. Her husband the king was occupied with other matters; so she would tell people, when they brought her some unattended matter and a dubious expression. “My husband the king is occupied with other matters. I will take care of this, my lord, and I’m certain that His Majesty sends his regards.”
She quelled the doubt in their faces and the hesitation in their voices, and she signed papers and issued orders. She was decisive and clear, strong-willed in her convictions and stubborn, refusing to bend to any influence, especially if it came from that baron she didn’t like. But she conducted this business in one of the two rooms remaining to her. She had retreated, certainly, gradually, like an army falling back against the castle waging war. The rooms had driven her out, bare echoing walls and lofty stone. She lost ground every day, and at this point she was locked in this fortress of two rooms abutting her bedchamber. She could greet visitors, and hear cases, and discuss politics there. After an exhausting day – several hours of courtiers – she could retire to her chamber, and ignore the lot of them. The rest of the castle – indeed, the rest of the kingdom – didn’t have to exist when she was done with the day. She huddled in her chamber, drawing a shawl around her shoulders, like some peasant woman instead of the queen of the land. She could pretend, there, that she was simple and honest, and had nothing more to do than any peasant, and could not have failed so greatly.
She knew at some point she would have to leave the safety of that room, have to leave the castle even. Eventually she would have to risk her own protected illusion, and venture out to look for her stepdaughter. Soon, she would find the princess.
The princess was anxious again to leave. The cottage couldn’t be safe, not now that the huntsman knew where it was. She hadn’t hurt him badly enough that it would even take him more than two hours back to the castle, and they must all be searching for her. In fact, the huntsman had gotten to the castle quite quickly, but he had not yet revealed her location. The princess wasn’t to know that, and she worried endlessly. She stayed because she had somewhere to stay, and the cottage was comfortable enough, and because the young and handsome noble who rode by every so often sent her sidelong looks as she sat outside with her sewing, or hung laundry on the line strung between the trees.
The queen had made all her preparations. She set aside a day to go. Her affairs were all in order, the business of the kingdom looked after. She’d worked very hard the week before, to have the entirety of one day to leave the castle itself, and ignore all her royal duty. She’d had a pile, waiting, on the dresser by her bed. There was a cloak and a simple dress sitting on the polished wood. She’d chosen a cloak made of plain cloth, very warm, with a hood. She had resolved to go alone. The huntsman was the only one who knew exactly of her plans, and he had resolved to follow her to ensure her safety. Even so, he was anxious. The queen was not. She had the calm certainty of a mother, that her actions were right, and for the child’s own good really. At last she would make it right between them, and bring the princess home.
The princess sat and embroidered, outside of the cottage. The young man had trotted by nearly a minute ago, and she sat very still with a smile playing on her lips, as if she knew that he was wheeling the mare around to go back to the little house. She looked up a moment later, and he was there, tall on the back of his dappled horse, hair shining in the soft sunlight of the forest, square jaw set and eyes gleaming. He stayed for a moment, still, and then he slipped off the side of the horse and started toward her.
The princess tensed, her back arched and neck bent. He was handsome, surely, but she was a woman alone with a stranger, and she was not royalty here. When he approached the bench where he was sitting, though, he bent smoothly in a bow, and on standing he spoke. He told her that he was a visiting prince, at a baron’s house in the kingdom for a few fortnights as ambassador. He had seen her sewing and he wanted to say, if it wasn’t too forward, that she was a very beautiful lady.
The fifteen-year-old girl flushed, and dimpled. She peeked out at him from under lowered lashes, suppressing a grin, and nodded her head regally to acknowledge the compliment. His face fell, a bit, but he merely bowed again and swung back onto his horse and rode away.
He was there again the next day, and the next. She wasn’t used to staying outside so long every day, but she found reasons to. She thought that probably he would be disappointed if she weren’t there. The third day he came, she told him she found him very charming. It startled her, when he stepped close, and her vision filled only with him. His eyes were staring down at hers, wide and innocent, and he tipped her face up to his and kissed her very gently.
The princess closed her eyes as if his lips were still on hers. His warmth was close to her, and one hand lightly resting on her arm. It vanished, and the sudden cool made her stagger, and her eyes flew open to the prince walking back to his horse, and riding away with a sweep of his hand in her direction.
He visited her every day after that first conversation, and while many of their visits were much like the first day, some of them found the princess startled again by his closeness, and his intent eyes. It frightened her, girl that she was, and she craved it.
She was giddy with the first flush of infatuation. The prince himself was very much in love. During the brief times they saw each other, in the short conversations filled with pauses, this worked very well.
The queen worried every day, nervous that each day she delayed her journey was one day too many. Her princess could be stumbling into danger at every moment, and her failure to go and to find her could cost dearly. Finally she was ready, and she donned the simple straight dress, and gathered the cloak around her. She stopped at the kitchen, slipped past the cooks and picked up a few things for her lunch. She didn’t think she would be back, and might not find an inn or someplace like. She brought a good helping of bread, and some cheese, and an apple.