Previously in “Blood, Sweat, and Tears”… well, actually, I’ll let the gossiping princesses fill you in on most of it.
The following morning, in the Hennestay castle, both sets of regional twin princesses were discussing the latest gossip while enjoying tea and cakes.
“Have you heard?” Princess Karina asked eagerly.
“Heard what?” questioned Princess Emmalyn.
“The whole countryside is in a tizzy about it,” said Princess Shannon.
“About what?” asked Emmalyn.
“It’s all anyone is talking about,” said Karina.
“What IS it?!” bellowed Princess Essandra, even though princesses should never, ever bellow.
“’Tis Prince Jaron and Princess Terren,” said Shannon. “It seems they left the Mayers castle yesterday near abouts midday, and no one has seen hide nor hair of them since!”
“Jaron’s crier had been led to understand they were going to the Liaralay castle,” Karina supplied, “but when he got there, Jaron and Terren were not just behind him as he supposed. He was left standing there all day!”
“Scandalous!” gasped Emmalyn. “Where do you suppose they’ve gone?”
“No one knows,” said Karina. “My guess is they’re eloping!”
“Don’t be silly,” said Shannon. “Terren would never elope with Jaron.”
“To escape marriage to Osmar?” snorted Essandra. “Like anyone with any sense to speak of, she’d do anything.”
Emmalyn “accidentally” spilled tea all over her sister’s gown. She had been – and yet was – quite fond of Osmar, and was most put out at the cessation of their betrothal. She would have liked to cover Princess Terren in tea, as well. Taking her prince only to run off with Prince Jaron… of all the ungrateful tricks!
“There is talk of war,”Shannon went on. “It is rumored that Terren’s parents are none too pleased with this turn of events. (And who can blame them?) So miffed are they, in truth, that they are contemplating an assault on the kingdom of Nikos.”
“Oh, heavens!” trilled Emmalyn. “Would that not be something! What does Jaron’s father, King Jakob, have to say about all this?”
“No one has heard a word from him,” said Karina. “Not surprising, really. For verily, he is the most reclusive king in the land. But I would guess that even he would show himself when the armies of Liaralay beat down his door.”
“Well, yes, I would guess the same,” said Shannon. “More tea, anyone?”
“This tea is horrible,” opined Essandra. “It is diluted beyond help, and the farmer who grew these tea leaves ought to be beheaded.”
“Uh… sure…” said Karina. “So, one lump or two?”
On and on the travelers rode. Over rolling hills and grassy plains. Through fertile fields and rocky valleys. At last, round aboutsmidday, they came to a halt by a babbling brook in a shady wooded area.
“Whew,” said Jaron, swinging off of his horse and swinging Terren off behind him. “Y’know, I never grow weary of lifting you on and off a horse. I do, however, grow weary of riding if I have to do it for more than a few hours at a time. So by your leave, we will rest a moment.”
“Jaron, I am losing patience with you,” Terren said tensely. “I am no longer asking you – this is a command: Take, me, home, now.”
Jaron, true to form, smirked. “Ah, yes, and since you are so far above me on the social and political ladders… Oh, wait – no you’re not. I guess that means I need not listen to you, princess. Now, if you will allow me, I badly necessitate a brief doze.” The prince lowered himself onto the grassy bank of the brook, lay back, and closed his eyes. “Rouse me in half-an-hour, won’t you?”
Terren stomped her dainty foot. “No I will not! I want to go home! And if you refuse to take me, I will return alone!”
Jaron drowsily opened one eye. “You intend to walk a full day’s journey back to your kingdom? In those slippers? Ha. A merry time you’ll have attempting that.”
“I do not intend to walk. I intend to ride your horse.”
Jaron raised his eyebrows in amusement. “Oh, do you? You tryest that. I say, noble steed o’ mine?” Jaron’s horse looked up from the brook where it was quenching the thirst brought on by a hard ride of many miles. “The princess would ride you back to her castle. Don’t let her.”
Terren rolled her eyes. As if a mere horse could understand such a command. She stepped forward, for to mount the horse. But the animal stepped to the side, thwarting her. The princess moved toward the horse again, and again it shied away. Thrice was this phenomenon repeated before Terren threw her hands up in frustration.
“Gadzooks, Jaron! How is it that your horse does comprehend human speech so well?!”
Jaron smiled a little. “’Tis an uncommonly intelligent beast,” quoth he, closing his eyes once more. “More intelligent, even, than many a child of man. May I catch some Zs now, milady?”
“Do what you want,” Terren spat. She stomped a few paces away that she might find a nice, tall clump of grass to kick. A suitable thicket found, kick she did. Once, twice, thrice… But on the fourth kick, a rough hand shot out from the undergrowth and gripped her royal ankle.
The princess’s cry was cut short as another hand clamped over her mouth, but what little cry was made was heard by Jaron’s sharp ears. He quickly shot up, just in time to see the hem of Terren’s skirt disappear into the tall grass.
“Oh, c’mon, not now…!” Jaron whined. “I dost require SLEEP, hang it!”
Terren, meanwhile, was being carried off like a gagged sack of potatoes by a large ruffian. The rapscallion ran but a few dozen yards before he met up with the others in his band of rogues. “Cast your eyes upon my prize, fellows!” he crowed, and the others jeered in appreciation. “I found this wench out near the Minstrel’s Stream.”
“All by her lonesome, was she?” inquired one of the scalawag’s fellows.
“I noticed no others, but then, I was not looking for any; I was heeding nature’s call in the tall grass.”
Terren wrinkled her petite nose and took a silent oath to avoid tall grass in the future.
“If there were others,” said one of the company, “they will soon be on our trail. We should make all haste to our secret headquarters.”
The others were in agreement with this. Terren was quickly trussed up and tossed onto the back of the baddies’ horse. Then the entire troupe proceeded deeper into the woods. At the first their pace was a hurried one, but when, after several minutes, they still had yet to find themselves pursued, their rate of speed reduced significantly.
“I guess she was alone after all,” commented one.
“’Twould appear so,” another nodded. “Ah, well, makes our jobs all the easier, eh, fell—”
His companions glanced over to see what had caused the speaker to stop short so. What they saw was his dead body on the ground.
Understandably, there was some swearing, followed by frantic looking about. Terren, as much as she was able, considering she was tightly bound and upside-down on a horse, looked about also. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw another of the hoodlums go down with a gargling gasp.
Only two of the crew remained, and each of them was feeling none too easy about the situation. “You don’t suppose this wood is haunted, do you?” one asked, jumping like he’d been shot when a mosquito brushed his nose, so edgy and agitated was he.
“I don’t think so,” replied the other, jumping because his associate had jumped, and he was more or less as edgy and agitated as the other. “Last I heard, the EnchantedForestwas the only place overly infested with spooks, spirits, and their ilk. This is just your typical, average, run-of-the-mill ARGH!!!…”
“What! What?!” the first hood screamed.
The second looked at him, wide-eyed, gasping for breath, life slowly ebbing from him. “S… S-sword…” he breathed. The last breath he ever breathed, incidentally.
The last man standing had had about enough of this suspense; at least, that’s the impression one would get from his screaming, “ENOUGH! Show yourself, whoever you are! For the love of all that’s decent in heaven and earth, SHOW YOURSELF!”
“Fine.” Jaron stepped out from behind a tree. “Here I am.”
That said, Jaron thrust his sword into the hooligan’s abdomen, nodding in satisfaction when the carcass ate dirt.
“Wherefore did you take so long to rescue me?” Terren demanded once Jaron had removed the gag that did hamper her speech.
“Begging your pardon, damsel in distress, but it was either wait until they no longer suspected pursuit or jump in at once when they were ready and be killed. Forgive me for choosing the former course.”
“Whatever,” said Terren, smoothing her tousled tresses. “Well, farewell.”
“Farewell?” repeated Jaron.
“Indeed,” said Terren. “See you, I have now a mount of my own. I can ride home now, if I so will it. And I do. So, farewell.”
Jaron watched the princess ride off until the flora, distance, and lack of the invention of glasses prevented him from watching further. After a snort that told of his deep displeasure, he gave a shrill whistle to call forth his horse. The horse appeared presently, and the prince mounted and continued on the path he’d set before himself, muttering oaths under his breath with every step his steed took.
Ere long, he came to a place where he was forced to pause. He glanced both left and right, frowning in bewilderment and concentration. Suddenly, he stopped, alert, for his sharp ears had detected movement not far behind him. He quickly forced his horse about and drew his sword, prepared for whatever creature might be upon him.
It turned out to be a horse, the princess Terren on its back.
“I do not know the way,” said she, sulkily.
Jaron graced her with a smirk-y smile. “What a shame. ‘Twould seem you’re stuck with me for awhile.”
Terren appeared as though she was sucking lemons. “Then let us keep that while as brief as possible. Come, spur your horse and ride.”
“I cannot, at present. Give but a moment, and we shall sally forth.”
“Why the delay?”
“I have difficulty recalling the bearing I am to take. Perhaps, my horse, you may remember better?”
The black beast tossed his head in an easterly direction and nickered with conviction.
“Ah, by the deuce, I believe you correct. Follow, Terren; we head east.”
“How is it your horse should know the way?” queried Terren, dubiously. “Can it interpret a map as well as know the human tongue?”
“Not at all. It knows the way for it has traveled this way before, and I with it. Now let us make haste – your most inconvenient capture has cost us much time.”
“No more time than your catnap by the brook would have taken,” Terren retorted.
“Nobody asked you.”
Another half-day they spent riding, stopping at last when the moon had risen and all the stars were twinkling merrily. This night, however, no inn was available, and so it was that they made their beds beneath the open sky.
“This ground is much too hard and rocky!” Terren lamented, tossing and turning on the lawn. “I cannot sleep upon it without some measure of bedding to cushion me.”
“I have naught but my very expensive cloak to give,” said Jaron. “And frankly, I was planning on using it as a covering against the night chill.”
“Please give it,” Terren beseeched, “or else I shall obtain no rest tonight.”
“Fine…” Jaron sighed, relinquishing his luxurious cape and spreading it o’er the ground.
“Thank-you,” said Terren, more out of etiquette than genuine gratitude; spoiled princesses tend to take getting their way for granted, after all. Really, Terren was surprised and annoyed she had not gotten more of her way during the last thirty-six hours.
From his semi-reclining position, propped against his already dozing horse, Jaron stared – with eyes as dark as the heavens above him – at the lovely princess as she gradually succumbed to slumber.
“Two nights,” he said, in a low, icy voice. “Two accursed nights have I gazed upon her, knowing I cannot have her.”
And then the gleam in his eyes shone brighter than the moon overhead. “…Yet.”
<<< End of Part 4 >>>