onsdag den 28. marts 2012

Chapter 8, part 5

Into the afternoon, they crossed an animal trail that prince Alexander felt was worth following. Catherine stayed far behind him while he slowly followed the trail on foot. After a while he stopped her.

"We're close enough. Wait here and be very quiet. Do not move about."

Catherine sat down on the ground, grateful for yet another break. Before long, though, the wait began seeming endless. Sitting still, watching Pello grassing behind her, observing the ants crawling across her leather boots. The silence reminded her of what her life would really be like if she were ever forced to travel the woods alone. It would become very lonely, she suddenly realised.

She already missed prince Alexander's company, and he was by far the scariest man she had ever met.

She waited for hours, if the feeling of it was anything to go by. Her legs cramped and her back hurt. Her hands had gotten filthy from resting on the ground. She thought she was dreaming when she heard the sound of something crashing through the branches further below. It was in fact the prince, using his poor horse to help drag a small deer towards her. She stood up, her legs spinning and burning from the lack of use.

"You got one," she shouted excitedly.

Prince Alexander grinned at her.

"I am not the worst hunter if I can say so myself," he answered. "In fact," he continued, "we will camp right here and celebrate! Do you know how to gut one of these?"

Catherine blanched. He laughed at her.

"Do stop fretting, my girl. I will do it. But you are going to have to gather some firewood in the meantime. I need to make sure that our enemies are not closing in on us. They were far away this morning, but we don't want them getting anywhere near us. Like I said, it looks like my death should one of them even learn of my position."

"I'll gather the wood, sir," she said, repressing a shudder. It was unnatural for a man to know about his own death like that. She did not like the fact that he was using magic so easily. He did not even seem repentant.

She gathered the wood, though it took her a lot longer than she had anticipated. The prince finished with his own smelly job before she was done. After disposing of the waste, he came to join her. The carefree smile on his face when she met his gaze surprised her. She had, yet again, expected him to get angry with her for not meeting his expectations.

He hurried past her with three times the amount of branches that she was carrying herself, and when she reached him, he had already lid a few small sticks. Before adding anything larger to the fire he drew out a small pouch from under his cloak and took out a bag that she had seen the evening before. He went to retrieve a small cup from where the carcass of the deer was hanging down from a large branch. Catherine drew back when she saw the blood it contained. He must have noticed. Grin still on his face and eyes fixed on the flames he started explaining.

"The blood makes the spell stronger and allows me to follow their movements a little while into the future as well. It is a strong spell, and it will let us know for how long we can safely stay here."

He sprinkled some small grains from the bag into the flames and then allowed the blood to drip into the sizzling branches. Catherine saw no difference, and had no idea what he was looking for. He was still smiling, however, and that made her feel safer.

When he did not move for a while, she had an idea. She unpacked her knife from one of the bags on his horse and went over to the deer. She kept the sheath of the knife tied to her belt. No need to have it lying in the bag in case something happened and she needed it.

His very poor job of cutting the bread had shown her that cooking was most likely not one of his strong sides. She was no cook herself, but she felt confident that she would be able to do a better job than him. She got her hands and sleeves bloody, and the result was far from pretty. At least the pieces of meat were relatively even and not just random chunks out of the animal.

She cut two branches and got them pointed enough that she could stick the meat unto them. Then she went back to the fire, where the prince had finished.

"Are they far?"

"At least two and a half days from where we are now and not really going our way at all. Most of them have gone to the east of the city, actually. I have a mansion there."

"I don't know how to do this," she said and waved the sticks at him. He smiled.

"Let me see," he said.

He placed the sticks so that the meat would cook, and they sat down. Catherine, no longer distracted by her various tasks, had to bite her tongue in order to keep in the whimpers of pain that wanted out from escaping her lips. Her legs were burning. In fact, her entire body felt like she had taken quite a beating.

The prince looked at her questioningly. Then he grinned.

"It takes a toll on you. You will get used to it. You might not even have to get used to it. With a little luck my men will have overtaken the castle by tomorrow, and the assassins will be gone."

"I hope so, sir."

He nodded.

"If they don't take over, what happens then?"

"Then I will wait for them here and gather them up for a second attack once they have regained their strength. We will not be defeated."

"So if they overtake the castle now, does that make you the king, then?"

"Indeed, that would mean that I would be king. after the crowning ceremonies."

"Then you don't have to marry after all," she said, thinking out loud.

The prince's expression soured. He was quiet for a second.

"You forget that I already cast a spell that is apparently useless," he growled.

torsdag den 22. marts 2012

Chapter 8, part 4

Before evening came, they stopped in a small clearing to camp for the night. The prince jumped smartly off his horse and onto the ground, where he immediately began offloading the saddlebags. Catherine looked at him for a moment, then swung her leg across the horse and fell to the ground. Prince Alexander ran towards her looking worried. She grabbed her arm where she had hurt it on a rock and sat up. Prince Alexander stopped rushing and started smiling amusedly at her instead. She did not find it funny. Her arm hurt so bad that she was afraid she might start crying.

"I'm so sorry," said he, when he saw her face. "Are you hurt? I forget that you are not used to riding."

"I'm fine," she growled.

He looked at her for a little while, but she refused to meet his gaze. He went pack to unpacking. When she was sure that he was no longer looking at her, she got to her feet. Slowly. Her legs felt as if they were on fire. Her arm might bruise, but it was nothing compared to what was happening to her thighs. She limped carefully to a patch of soft looking grass and sat down. Slowly.

The prince finished with his own horse, then turned around and stared at her. She noticed the anger on his face for a moment, then something that might be pity. At least he went to Pello, her horse, and started taking off the saddle. She was grateful that he did not make her get back up.

In the end he surprised her again when he built a fireplace in a comfortable length from where she had sat down. He did not mock her for having sore legs, which she had feared he might do. She blushed anyway since it was obvious why she was acting the way she was.

"Thank you," she said, and nodded in the general direction of the fire and the horses.

"you will get used to it," was all he said. "Are you hungry?"

"Yes, sir, I'm starving."

"We have a bit of bread here. Starting tomorrow we might have to hunt. I hope you are able to stand the sight of blood for the sake of dinner?"

Catherine nodded. She had often imagined what it would be like to kill something. For the sake of dinner. A small part of her was thrilled at this whole new adventure, despite the bruises and the pain. It was almost like she had dreamed it would be; the forest, the fire, the horse. The only thing out of place was Prince Alexander, who was chopping large chunks off of a small loaf of bread. He did the same to the cheese, handed her a few bits and then took a long drink from a water skin. That he proceeded to hand to her.

Catherine drew back a little.

"No thank you sir," she said, not wanting to put her mouth where his had just been.

The prince looked at her, then smiled.

"Oh, are you afraid? We are in a forest, Catherine, no one is going to care if we drink from the same cup."

"That is not a cup, and I care."

"Are you telling me you have never shared anything more filthy than this wine with anyone, ever? I did not know the water was so clean in your father's part of town."

Catherine huffed. Then paused.

"That's wine?"

He nodded. She took the skin from him and took a sip. It was worth it. It even made the terrible-looking chunks of food go down easier. Not that her hunger would have allowed her a moment's hesitation either way. They ate in silence for a while.

"We will need to be at least two days away from the city. Maybe three. Not more than that, though. That way I can keep up with anyone following us and still make sure that we get back once this is all over."

The last part of his sentence was growled. He clearly did not enjoy staying away from a fight. Maybe it was even the fight itself he missed.

Prince Alexander handed her a large blanket and took one for himself. He went to lie down on the other side of the fire. Catherine was happy that it was still relatively warm out.

When she was woken up in the grey dawn, everything was damp, and the fire had died out. Somehow the prince managed to get it back to life while she got up. Her entire body hurt. The process of having a quick breakfast consisting of the remaining bread and a sip of wine, and getting back on the horse, seemed tedious.

Suddenly the life out doors was not as much fun as it had been in her dreams. She forced herself to focus on the fresh air and the fact that she could do anything she wanted in order to save her good mood. It helped.

The horses were clearly feeling much better. They were impatient and did not need many moments before they sped off. In a very short time their little camp site was gone. In front of them was the thick, green forest. Prince Alexander grinned at her as he sped past. She could not help herself but smiled and tried to catch up. Pello was a fine horse, as she had not had to worry about the price, but he could not keep up with the stallion the prince was riding on. Apparently that was just one more perk to being royal.

They made a few stops during the day, mainly for Catherine's sake. She stretched her sore legs a little and had a drink of water. The prince did not seem to need any rest, but he never got angry with her for her weakness. 

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onsdag den 14. marts 2012

Chapter 8, part 3

Early one morning Catherine was woken up by the prince. He looked terrible, face drawn in a snarl, hair spilling over his face. Her first thought was that the magic had taken hold of him again, and that she would spend another few hours clutched to his chest.

"We are leaving, get up now! Go and dress yourself in anything that you have"

The urgency in his voice made her obey him right away. Without stopping to see if he had turned away, she walked out of the room in her night gown and went to dress herself in something simple. She was glad that she had also kept a set of comfortable clothes made of sturdy materials ready for this day. She had not expected the prince to be with her, but she was prepared. She emerged and found him waiting for her.

"Do you still have all that gear of yours laying about?"

She nodded.

"Good. We'll need to use that for a few days. I can't let anyone know that were are going."

He handed her a heavy cloak that he had brought with him. She noticed that he was wearing one himself. He took her hand. They ran to the stables, leaving Catherine a mess, struggling to breathe. She had not had much exercise in the past three months. The prince found a stable boy that he seemed to know well and helped him get their horses ready. Catherine was glad that she had had clothes ready for this occasion. She could have been looking forward to a very uncomfortable ride indeed. He had not even mentioned that they would in fact be riding.

She told him where to find her things, still wondering why he had never mentioned them to her before, since he obviously knew about them, and mounted her horse. That at least she now knew how to do.

The prince joined her and led the way out of the castle grounds. It was still early enough that not too many guards saw them. The ones that did were paid handsomely to keep quiet for at least a few days.

As soon as the reached the city, they sped up and rushed down the empty streets. Catherine had to concentrate to keep up, and was terrified that she might fall off. She hoped that all the riding she had done would be enough for her to stay alive on this sudden journey.

They went out of the city and into the fields that surrounded it. An hour after she had been woken up, they were already quite far away from the castle. Two hours later they entered the forest that lay to the west of the city and the prince finally slowed down. After a short while he came to a full stop and went down on the ground. He drew a few lines in the dirt and started blowing a black powder from his pocket onto them. She watched as the powder glowed where it hit the ground and then faded to a dull grey.

The prince looked up at her.

"This is going to divert them if they follow us."

"Who, sir?"

He must have forgotten that she still had no idea what was happening. He made a strange face, then mounted his horse and made a sign for her to continue riding next to him. They rode slowly and he started telling her.

"I am afraid the king is dead," he began. Catherine wanted to express her sympathy, but he waved her off. "It is for the best. I have been waiting for that my entire life. We were not exactly close. What I did not expect was my cousin travelling towards us with an army. I have given orders for my own troops to fight, but I happen to know that his assassins will succeed in killing me if they find me. So until further notice, I am running away like a coward, letting my men do the fighting for me."

"You're not a coward, sir," Catherine said. "It cost you a lot of pride to do what is best for the country and stay out of the reach of these men. That isn't cowardly."

He looked at her and smiled bitterly.

"Thank you, little one. I am afraid it is not that pretty, but I appreciate your trying. Anyway, I have made sure that my prospective brides have all been sent towards their homes. It would not do for them to be found here. No need to have them be used as weapons against me."

"When will they arrive at the castle, sir?"

"About an hour after sunrise. Early enough that they might have caught us all off guard and killed everyone important right away."

"Good thing that you did not sleep. Why didn’t you sleep, sir?"

He looked at her again, a warning on his face. After a long silence he answered her anyway.

"I've been too uncomfortable to sleep for a while now. I did not think it appropriate to take measures to relieve my distress, and so I have spent my nights looking after all sorts of things. Both out of boredom and out of hope that I would stumble across the right answer."

Catherine had no answer. For a while she thought about how grateful she was that he had not come to sleep next to her again. He easily could have done as she had very few real rights. No one would have cared if he had done so. Honour must have kept him in his own rooms, she thought.

"Sir, have you been getting any closer to the answer, then?"

"To be honest, I probably had it down to either Lily Maria, Iris or Corinna," he said, confiding in her as he had been doing ever since she stopped making mistakes. "They would all make rather good queens, and I have found nothing to discredit either of them. I was very close to just picking one, actually. I am still not sure which one I would have gone with, but one of the three to be sure."

They rode on in silence as the forest grew darker and wilder around them. 

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mandag den 12. marts 2012

Chapter 8, part 2

In the morning Lady Gunilla, who Catherine had not even spoken to yet, had left. The prince made no comment this time. Catherine did not like the fact that his choice had now been made easier.

Catherine spent a few days acting exactly as she was supposed to. Ingrid helped her with her act, but she was beginning to get the hang of small things like how to sit, eat and walk, which made it easier for her to relax and focus.

She quickly began learning a lot from the small conversations. She found out that Lady Auriel had a weakness for card games, that Princess Laura could not say no to sweets and that Lady Marianne made grammar mistakes when she spoke.

Every new discovery was reported to the prince in the evenings. Every evening he seemed a little more angry with her. She understood that he still felt drawn towards her, and that the pain must be getting difficult for him to bear. It still surprised her when he kept getting closer to her, growling like an animal.

Two weeks passed during which the prince began undertaking little walks and similar activities with the remaining seven women. Naturally Catherine was there as well. Princess Iris never spoke a word to her, but did once or twice greet her. Princess Anna seemed to notice and began talking to Catherine as if she wanted to find out what her friend disliked.

Catherine found out that way that the princess was mainly interested in the prince to avoid the marriage to her cousin, which had been arranged when she was a small child. When she told this to the prince, he seemed relieved. He smiled at Catherine and sent her on her way. She did not know what to make of that. Except maybe that the prince did not like princess Anna very much.

As the weeks went past, she gathered more and more information, tiny scraps of knowledge about each of the women. The prince wrote down everything she told him and kept a journal of his own opinions. Catherine became quite skilled at sitting still and doing nothing with her hands. Her manners improved greatly and she rarely needed Ingrid's help any more. She even started getting used to having maids around.

Before she knew it she had been at the castle for more than three months. Her birthday had come and gone. She felt sure that she was now actually a great help to the prince, who had stopped shouting at her when she delivered bad news. When princess Anna pulled her aside and told her under four eyes to let the prince know that she was leaving, because she no longer enjoyed his little game, prince Alexander just made a note on a page of his diary and smiled at her.

"She was not among my first choices anyway," he said.

"So you are getting closer, sir?"

"Well, I have narrowed it down a bit. I am considering staging a few accidents to see how they react. I'm thinking of having an employee steal something of lady Corinna's, for instance. She is too calm. And maybe I would like to see princess Iris after her maid is unable to help her dress in the morning. Lady Marianne could do with someone better standing talking down to her, I think. Well, you get the picture, my dear. What do you think?"
"If that is what you need in order to make the choice, sir. None of them are patient any longer."

With that, she left in order to join the others in the garden. She made a short detour to the stables, where she declined the offer to have a horse saddled for her. She just wanted to check on her belongings.

When Ingrid had told her that she could order anything she wanted and pay for it with the allowance she had been given, she took her up on it and ordered a small, strong horse and a full pack of everything one might need to survive for quite a while in the wilderness. Knives, pots, a small tent, a blanket, extra clothing, rope, fishing gear and a thousand little extras that the servant had suggested she add to the pack.

She had not been asked about the purchase, and she made sure to go down and talk to the little horse, that she had named Pello, once in a while. He seemed to like her well enough and didn't complain about the little treats she brought him.

After a short visit and a trip to her rooms to freshen up, she went to the gardens where she would smile, listen in and participate in ridiculous games. Many of their days were spent this way. they had boring little lunches on the lush, green grass. They endured each other's chit chat and pretended to be on vacation. A long sort of visit.

Each of the six remaining women's families and friends had accepted their presence with that excuse, or they would not have remained. They all wanted to go back home or get married. Most of them despised the others. Catherine pretended as if nothing was the matter and did her best to engage the others in small activities, like card games or needlework, that made their tongues run a little more loosely.

When lady Corinna's pearls were stolen by a maid and she demanded the poor girl whipped, Catherine had to be very careful not to catch the princes' eye, or she would start laughing. The same thing was true when princess Iris came to breakfast with her beautiful hair loose and her dress in a tangled mess. Lady Marianne greatly insulted a guest of the prince, who made her loose her temper. Princess Laura had soup spilled in her lap by a clumsy servant and broke into tears. Lady Auriel was unable to walk to her rooms when she had been offered too much champagne and did not decline. Princess Lily Maria gracefully listened to the prince insulting her father. 

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fredag den 9. marts 2012

Chapter 8, part 1

After making excuses for her at lunch and going in before her to explain the situation to the prince, Ingrid came to get her and let her into the prince's chamber where he was waiting for her. He looked angry, but more composed than the day before. She greeted him politely and sat down before he could ask her to. As long as he didn't know what she had been trying to do, she would act with confidence and lie. She would not let him throw her out before she had done everything she possibly could to get to stay.

"I'm sorry, sir," she said. The prince nodded and waited for her to continue. Maybe he was less angry than she thought she was. "I was trying to get close to the princess, and she seemed completely relaxed. Then out of the blue she started telling me that she knew I was a liar. I don't think she is going to tell anyone, and I didn't confirm any of the things she said."

"And you little game before that?"

She hadn't expected Ingrid to tell him that many details of the princess' words. She should have expected it. "I'm sorry, sir. I thought I would make it look like I was helping her," she lied.

"Helping her by telling her completely random lies about what I want in a woman, if I understand correctly?"

"Well, I didn't know what to tell her exactly. I just gave little hints and signs and allowed her to interpret them."

"When did I tell you to do anything that stupid? I told you to nod, smile and win their confidence! Princess Iris happens to be one very powerful woman, and you have just made an enemy of her. It's one thing that she figured out that you were lying, but to have her know that you are actively working against her?"

"I'm not working against her, really, sir, I promise, I wasn't thinking."

"She does not know that. Stupid girl! I have given you every reason to help me, I expect you to make an effort."

Catherine tried to breathe calmly. His pale, angry face was not doing anything to calm her despite their strange conversation the night before. She still didn't trust him not to kill her, and she didn't know how to pretend to be thankful for an opportunity to stay off the streets for a few months. She nodded.

Suddenly she was sure that the prince stared at her more intently than before. She forced herself not to look away. He slowly rose from his chair and started moving towards her.

"If you don't help me, you will be back out there where your family is your only way to avoid starvation. How would you like that? I suggest you think before you act the next time." He was standing too close to her, invading the space she was in. But his voice was less harsh than it had been a few days earlier.

She nodded.

"I'm aware of that, sir."

"Good. Now technically you did rather well. You got to talk to her in private. So tell me what you thought."

Catherine did not dare to lie again.

"She is very intelligent. She knows a lot and she figures the rest out. She's graceful and friendly unless she gets angry. Then she's pretty honest and very scary. I don't think she's easy to trick."

The prince nodded.

"Well that was obvious already. But thank you." He took a few steps around the room. "This was not bad at all. It doesn't matter what she thinks of you as long as she keeps her opinion private. We know how she stands now. And frankly I have nothing to judge by other than that."

Catherine just hoped that meant that it would take him a very long time to decide. She smiled at him. He looked startled for a moment. Then he sent her a friendly nod.

"You can go now."

"Thank you, sir."

Catherine left for her own rooms and did not bother to call for Ingrid, who was for some reason not with her. She stayed in her rooms and took another long bath. She knew for certain that she would fail if she tried to play games with the more mature and educated minds around her. There was no way she would try to do so again. The prince had a very difficult decision to make either way, and she did not think that it would get easier. Apparently he had no idea any more. If she was lucky, she would get a few more weeks or months of living in the castle. She could not do anything about that.

But she could prepare. She had an allowance. If she did not spend it on something useful it might simply disappear when her time was up. She would ask Ingrid about making purchases in the morning. Then she would do her best to stay close to the women in the castle. She would be as useful as she could and hope for some sort of gratitude later on.

She dried herself in a large, soft towel and dressed in a soft nightgown. There was no one around to complain about the fact that she did not call a maid to help her. She would enjoy that as much as she planned on enjoying the rest of her stay.

The bed was large and soft and the covers felt like air. The room around her glowed in the candlelight and the paintings on the wall were like windows into other worlds. She would miss the luxury of that. But she would also find some way to make sure she would not go straight to sleeping on the ground.