Eaglethorpe Buxton and the Elven Princess

Chapter Eleven: Wherein we start to get down to the truth of things.

We rode in silence for most of the morning.  I don’t know precisely what the orphan was thinking, but I was thinking on him, or rather her.  I am well aware that one is just as likely to come upon a female orphan as a male one, but the more I thought on it, the more I realized that if my young friend had lied about being a boy, then it was just as likely that she had lied about being an orphan.

It was just about time for elevenses when I spied two snowshoe hares sitting beside the road munching on a few sprigs of green which poked out of the snow.

“Hop down,” I told the orphan.

“Why?”

“I want you to get a rock and bean one of those hares,” said I.  “If you can kill it, we can eat.”

“I don’t know that I can hit it.”

“It can’t be more than thirty feet away.  Any boy could hit it with a rock from this distance.”

“I don’t know…”

“Come on boy.”

The child slid to the ground and then picked up a likely looking stone from a small pile not too far from her feet and hefting it back, launched it in the general direction of the hares.  She didn’t have much heft, and with the lob she put on the rock, if it had hit the hare, it would have done nothing more than make it angry.  Of course there was no chance of that, since the course of the missile was off to the right by a good thirty degrees.  The hares started and took off over the snow, disappearing among the trees.

I dropped down to the ground and pointed my finger accusingly.  With my finger pointed and my back stiff, I cut an intimidating figure.  One can often get what one wants simply by being intimidating.  I know of a few warriors, warriors of great renown mind you, who in truth had never done much warrioring at all.  They simply struck an intimidating pose when the time was ripe and their reputations were made.  Now that I think about it, I quite possibly could have avoided fighting the goblins the previous night, by just striking my intimidating pose, finger out and back straight.  I mean of course, the first goblins, the ones on the road, as the second group of goblins, the ones in the cabin, were in quite a rush to get out the door and had I simply stood in an intimidating pose, they quite probably would have run me over.

“What are you doing now?” asked the orphan.

“I am thinking about intimidating poses.”

“Well, you certainly have managed an intimidating pose there.”

“Thank you.  I put a lot of work into it.”

“Well it shows.”

“Thank you.  It’s nice to have one’s work appreciated.”

“You’re welcome.”

“And don’t change the subject,” said I.

“And just what subject was that?”

“You are a girl.”

“Um, no.”

“Um yes.  And not only that, you are an elfish girl.”

“An elven girl.”

“So you admit it.”

“Um, no.”

“Um yes.  I saw you without your cap.”

“Oh.”

“Besides,” said I.  “You throw like a girl.”

“Well what do you expect?” the girl asked.  “I’ve never thrown a rock before.”

“Oh-ho!”

“Oh-ho yourself,” said she.  “All right I’m a girl.  That doesn’t change anything.  I still need your help to get home.”

“It changes quite a bit,” I said accusingly.  “For one thing, you are a liar.  You told me that you were a boy.  If you lied about that, what else have you lied about?”

“I never actually said I was a boy.”

“You most certainly did.  I said ‘I see that you are a sturdy boy, despite your condition…’ and you said ‘Yes, I am a sturdy boy…”

“Who would have guessed that you had such a perfect memory?” grumbled the child, folding her arms over her chest.

“So,” I said, again striking my intimidating pose.  “What else have you lied about?  I will wager your name is not really Orphan.”

“I never said my name was Orphan, you bloody great buffoon!  I said my name was Galfrid.  You just keep calling me orphan.”

“Is your name Galfrid?”

“No.”

“You see?  Liar!”

“It wasn’t a lie.  It was a disguise.”

“You were disguised as an orphan named Galfrid?”

“Yes.”

“Are you an orphan then?”

“Not really.”

“Liar!”

“I’m more of an orphan that you are,” she said sullenly.

“How can you be more of an orphan than I am?” I asked.

“Why couldn’t I be,” said she.  “If anyone could be, I could be.”

“I mean, what makes you more of an orphan than me.”

“My mother died.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”  I was taken aback.  “My condolences on your loss.”

“That’s all right.  It happened a long time ago.”

“How long ago?” I wondered.

The girl looked up into the sky as she counted the years in her head.

“Sixty-five years ago.”

“Sixty-five years!  How old are you?”

“Seventy-nine.”

“An old woman and only half an orphan,” said I.

“Hold on now,” said she.  “The natural life of an elf is close enough to a thousand years as not to matter. I’m only seventy-nine.  I’m scarce out of puberty.”

“So not-Galfrid, what is your story?”

“I don’t think I want to tell you,” said she.  “You won’t believe me anyway.  You think I’m a liar, so why bother explaining.”

“I don’t think you are a liar,” I replied.  “I know you are one.  And now that I think about it, maybe I don’t care to hear your story.  Maybe you’re more trouble than you’re worth.”

“Really?  What about Eaglethump Boxcrate, friend to those who are need of a friend and a protector to those who are in need of a protector and a guardian to those who are in need of a guardian?”

She had me there.  It is well known that Eaglethump… Eaglethorpe Buxton is a friend to the friendless and all those other things.  So I had little choice but to help the old lady out.

“Well,” I took a deep breath.  “What is your name?”

“Princess Jholeira.”

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Eaglethorpe Buxton and the Elven Princess

Chapter Ten: Wherein I discover the true nature of my companion.

I never did find out what the man who owned that cabin did for a living.  I didn’t examine his body closely enough to see if he was old enough to have retired from somewhere else to settle in the country.  I didn’t see if he had any outbuildings where he could have carried on a trade.  I don’t know if he was a good man or a bad one. And to tell the truth, I didn’t notice much about him physically.  I do know this… he had a very fine bed.  It had been nearly three weeks since I had slept in a bed and this one was at least as good as that one had been.  Before you ask, the other one was in the second floor of an in an inn called the Lonesome Hedgehog, where incidentally a nice, plump serving wench with the top two buttons of her blouse undone had brought me a very nice mutton stew.  No pie though.

What with all the adventures that had come upon me of late, and what with not having slept on a bed in a fortnight and a half, as you can imagine, it didn’t take me long to fall asleep.  I had brushed down my noble steed, which is to say Hysteria.  Then I had taken off my boots and wiggled my toes. Then I put my knife under my pillow. When my head touched lightly on the pillow, I was dreaming.  I don’t remember exactly what I dreamed about.  Only that it had something to do with my cousin Gervil, and that for some reason he was chopping onions.  I never found out why he was chopping onions, because I was awakened by the sound of the cabin door opening.

I didn’t stir.  I kept my eyes squinted so that they looked shut to someone looking at me, but I could still see.  At the same time I slid my hand under my pillow to take hold of my knife.  I needn’t have worried though, as it was the orphan returning from outside and bolting the door after him.  I suppose that he had stepped out to answer nature’s call.  I started to return to slumber when something about the orphan stopped me.

I continued to watch him as there was something different about him.  It took me several moments to realize what it was, but then it hit me.  I was seeing my companion for the first time without his cap.  Where before his head had been covered by a ratty wool creation, it was now covered by long, golden locks, held down with braided strands around the temples.  And on either side of his head was a long slender pointed ear, pierced three or four times by thick silver rings.  He was a girl!  He was a girl and he was an elf!  This was quite a strange development and I didn’t know what to do about it, so I did nothing.  I simply went back to sleep.

The next morning the orphan was waiting for me when I woke.  His long golden hair and his long pointed ears were now carefully tucked under the cap.  I suppose at this point in my story, I should probably begin calling the orphan she instead of he.  Truth be known, I still think of her sometimes as a boy.  It just goes to show that my poor old mother was right.  First impressions are important.

“It’s about time you woke,” said she.

“Did I have some specific reason to rise early?” I wondered.  “Do I have an appointment at the apothecary?  Is the Queen of Aerithraine, with whom I once had the pleasure of spending a fortnight, waiting to give me an audience?”

“No need for sarcasm,” said she.  “I merely point out that the sun has been up for some time.  I’ve gone through the larder of the poor human… I mean the poor man who lived here and found some food not spoiled by goblins. We have a jar of crabapples, a jar of pickles, and a few bits of dried meat.  There are also bags of coffee, flour, and dried beans that you can take with you.”

“Why didn’t you whip up a pot of coffee for us?” I asked.  “Especially as you are so concerned about the hour.  It would have woken me up earlier.”

“Um, I don’t know how to make coffee.”

“Really?  Oh well.”

We ate our bit of dried meat and crabapples for breakfast and saved the pickles for later.  I put them, along with the coffee, flour, and dried beans in my pack, and then loaded the pack and the saddle onto Hysteria.  And though she and I were both loath to leave the relative warmth of the cabin to return to the snowy outside, we did.  The frosty overnight weather had frozen the bodies of human and goblin alike to the ground, so that I would have had to wait until they thawed a bit before I could give them a proper burial, even if I had been so inclined.  I wasn’t.  So, hoisting the orphan back up behind me, which is to say upon Hysteria’s haunches, we started off again down the road.

Eaglethorpe Buxton and the Elven Princess

Chapter Nine: Wherein I demonstrate the value of a classical education.

“Do you think they are the same goblins that we saw earlier?” asked the orphan, at my shoulder, peering into the window.

I could only shrug, for in truth one goblin looks much the same as another to me.  Though I had relatively close contact with three of the creatures earlier that evening, which is to say having kicked two and poked one in the head with my knife, I can’t say that I had become familiar enough with any of the three to distinguish them from any other of their race.  That being said, I was relatively sure that the one I had poked in the head with my knife was not among those now in the little cabin.  These goblins were singing or drinking or dancing or doing some combination of the afore-mentioned, all of which are extremely difficult if not impossible to do when one is dead.

“What are you going to do?” wondered the orphan.

“Why do you suppose I should do anything?” I wondered.

“Shouldn’t you avenge the poor man lying on the floor?  After all, he is a human being killed by foul goblins, and you are a… I mean we are human beings too.”

“Aye, it is true that we are human beings.”

“And he was killed by goblins.”

“I do hate goblins.”

Hysteria knickered.  She hated goblins too, probably because they stand so low to the ground and as I have pointed out before, she dislikes anything too near her feet.

“And I am frozen,” the orphan continued.  “I would love to spend the night inside of doors and near a warm fire.”

“Now you make a compelling argument,” said I.

“So what are you going to do?”

“Have you ever heard of Brementown?”

“Uh…no.  Why?”

“There is a story told there of a group of musician animals.”

The orphan rolled his eyes.  I explained my plan, devised on a variation of the Brementown story.  Turning Hysteria so that her rear end was pointed toward the wall of the cabin, I left her with the orphan while I went back to the front and took a position by the door.  Pulling out my knife, I placed my fingers in my mouth and whistled, which was the prearranged signal for both my noble steed and the orphan.

At the signal, Hysteria began kicking the wall of the cabin with both hind feet and the orphan commenced to making all manner of strange noises.  I was so surprised by the cacophony of sounds, which is to say noises that came out of the youngster’s mouth that I almost forgot my own part of the plan.  I am aware that boys are well-versed in the creation of creative noises as well as all kinds of mimicry, having been a boy myself once.  But this orphan was a true artist.  He belted out the yowls of a wildcat, the braying of a donkey, the barking of a dog, the screech of harpy, and the gurgling growl of a frog-bear. Not to be outdone, Hysteria let loose with the squeal of an angry equine, which is to say a horse.

It was scant seconds before the door burst open and the goblins began pouring out into the snow, their shrieks clearly indicating that they were frightened out of their tiny little minds.  The first two who came out were quickly dispatched with my knife.  After that I decided that it was too strenuous to keep bending down to kill them, as they are so low to the ground and I had been riding all night long, which under the best of conditions can give one a sore back.  Thereafter, I reverted to my now well-practiced maneuver of using their heads as makeshift kickballs, which is to say I kicked them on their kickball-shaped heads.

In the space of twenty seconds, I managed to get rid of all the goblins, which turned out to be seven.  I can’t swear that all of the goblins were dead, as five had been sent in long arcs through the air into the darkness of the woods.  They were gone though.  Scant moments later, the orphan, Hysteria, and I were inside the cabin.  I put Hysteria in the corner furthest from the fireplace and directed the boy to stoke the fire, while I pulled the body of the unfortunate former owner out into the snow next to two of his apparent murderers. Thereafter, I went back inside and bolted the door.

“That was a wonderful plan,” said the orphan.

“Indeed it was.”

“I’m surprised you thought of it.”

“Just one of the benefits of a classical education,” said I.  “If I did not know the story of the Musicians of Brementown, I would not have known what to do.  And as I recall, you looked noticeably unimpressed when I mentioned my knowledge of this particular bit of culture.”

“I do admit I thought it a waste of time, um… at the time,” admitted he.  “I offer you my apologies.”

“I suppose I will have to accept them,” said I.  “What with you being a poor, ignorant orphan.”

“Your magnanimity is wonderful to behold,” said he.  “In any case, I think I would like to hear the story of the Musicians of Brementown.”

“Oh no!” cried I.  “You still owe me a shiny penny for the story of Queen Elleena of Aerithraine.”

“But you didn’t finish it.”

“Of course I did.”

“No.  You didn’t. When you stopped, she wasn’t even Queen yet.  She was stuck in the temple in Fall City.”

“When she turned fourteen, she returned to the capital in Illustria and was crowned Queen by the Pope, after which she took control and banishing him back to Fall City.”

“How did she do that?”

“No one knows.”

“Gah!” he cried.  “You are the worst storyteller ever!”

“What would a poor, ignorant orphan know about it?”

“I know you’re not getting my penny!”

“Go to sleep,” I ordered him.  “You sleep on the rug by the fire.  I will take the bed, after I give Hysteria a good rub-down.”

Eaglethorpe Buxton and the Elven Princess

Chapter Eight: Wherein I return to my story of the Queen of Aerithraine.

I put away my knife and then climbed back into the saddle.  The orphan had regained his feet and I reached down, took his hand, and lifted him back into his spot behind me.  He reached around my waist and held on tight.

“Thank you,” he said.

“All is well,” said I.  “A few goblins are no match for a trained warrior.”

“Then how did they manage to prevent Prince Jared from becoming the King of Aerithraine? Did they catch him asleep and murder him?”

“One might have supposed that, under ordinary circumstances.”  I continued my story.  “These times were not ordinary.  Goblins are not only small and stupid and smelly; they are disorganized. But every once and so often, there comes along a goblin who is big enough and just smart enough to unite the goblin tribes and lead them on the warpath against the civilized lands of humans.”

“I had always heard that none of the human lands were truly civilized,” said he.

“What an odd and unorphanish thing to say.”

“Um… oh. I’m just discombobulated from the incident with the goblins.”

“Even so,” I agreed.  “Well, at the time my story takes place, there was one such goblin king, who came to power by killing and eating his many rivals.  And as happens when the goblins become unified in such a way, they experienced a population explosion.  The mountains of the Goblineld were teaming with the little blighters.  When the mountains could no longer contain them, they swept out across the southern third of the Kingdom of Aerithraine, destroying everything in their path.”

“Frightening,” said the orphan.

“Quite frightening.”

“Still…”

“Still what?”

“Humans are so large and goblins are so small.  You vanquished three pairs of goblins, and did it quite handily too.”

“Thank you.”

“And you don’t seem particularly skilled or particularly bright.”

“What?”

“I just wonder that an entire human kingdom could not put together an army to destroy even a large horde of goblins,” said the orphan.  “I would imagine that even a well-trained militia could do the job.  I once heard the story of the Calille Lowain who held off five thousand goblins at Greer Drift.”

“I don’t know that story,” said I.

“Perhaps I will tell it to you sometime,” said he.  “But what about it?  Couldn’t the humans defeat the goblins?”

“There were tens of thousands of them.  Hundreds of thousands.  Thousands of thousands.  But you are right.  In other times, such hordes were sent packing, back to their mines and tunnels in the Goblineld.  This time though, the goblins had a hidden ally.  Far to the east, the Witch King of Thulla-Zor, who is always looking for ways to cause destruction and chaos, saw this as an opportunity.  He supplied the goblin king with magic and weapons, and sent trolls and ogres to strengthen his ranks.  None of these facts were known to King Justin when he rode forth with the Dragon Knights to meet them.

“King Justin, his three younger sons, and all of the Dragon Knights were slaughtered—to a man. Prince Jared, who had been in the north fighting sea raiders, hurried his forces south, only to meet a similar fate. The goblins were waiting for him. The entire southern third of the kingdom fell— and remained in the goblins’ filthy little hands for almost twenty years.  And the Goblin King feasted on the spoils of war, sitting on his throne far below the surface of the mountains, drinking his disgusting goblin wine from a cup made from the skull of King Justin.”

“How horrible,” murmured the orphan.

“Yes indeed,” I continued.  “And I think the worse part of the story is what happened to Queen Beatrix.”

“What happened to her?”

“She died. She died of a broken heart.  And her unborn child almost died with her.

“Unborn child? It didn’t die?”

“No, the court physician cut the child from the Queen’s belly.  It was a tiny baby girl.”

“Queen Elleena!” snapped the orphan.

“She should have been,” said I.

“What do you mean?”

“She should have been Queen the moment she was birthed, but that wasn’t to be.  There were too many competing interests at court. Too many nobles wanted the throne for themselves.  And in the chaos that followed the fall of the south lands, they might have done it, had it not been for the church.  Little Princess Elleena Postuma was whisked off to the temple in Fall City, where she stayed for the next fourteen years, and Pope Bartholomew became the regent of the kingdom.”

“Did they keep Elleena prisoner in the temple?” wondered the orphan.

“Of course they didn’t,” said I.  “Though I will wager she sometimes felt that she was in a prison.  She could go anywhere she wanted to as long as she stayed in Fall City and under constant protective guard.  In the meantime she was given all the training and education that was necessary for one who would one day rule.”

“It is like prison,” said the orphan.

“Neither you nor I will ever really know the truth of that.”

At that moment, I spied a light in the distance.  The story, or at least this chapter of the story over, conversation ceased. I urged Hysteria forward, which is to say I encouraged her onward toward the distant light, which turned out to be a small cabin on the side of the road.  Yellow light spilled from its tiny windows onto the snow.

Not having had the best of luck so far that night with regard to welcomes, which is to say that I had been attacked three times already that night, two times of which I have already described for you here, I dismounted and crept around to the side of the cabin to the window and peered inside. Lying on the floor in a pool of blood was a man in common work clothes.  The single room of the little cabin had been ransacked.  And dancing around, or sitting and singing, or drinking were more of the little, round-headed blighters, which is to say goblins.

Eaglethorpe Buxton and the Elven Princess

Chapter Seven: Wherein my story is interrupted by goblins, thereby explaining why it might not seem as good as it really was.

Goblins are nasty little blighters.  They remind me of my cousin Gervil’s friend called Rupert.  His name was Sally, which explains why he was called Rupert.  But like goblins, he was short and had a big, round head.  I don’t know why goblins have such large heads for their little bodies. Of course I don’t know why Rupert did either.  There doesn’t seem to be much advantage in it.  On the other hand, goblins have excellent night vision, making it very easy to sneak up on people in the dark.  And they have abnormally large mouths with an abnormally large number of teeth in them. This was very unlike Rupert, which is to say Sally, who as I recall had only five or six teeth, though he made up for that by having an extra toe.  In addition to which I don’t believe his night vision was all that it might have been, for once he kicked me in the head when he was on his way to the outhouse. Of course that could have been on purpose.  Rupert was a bit of a nasty blighter too.

“What are you doing?” asked the orphan, as Hysteria took a step back.

“Thinking about a fellow called Rupert,” said I.

“Well stop it, and get us away.”

I said that Hysteria took a step back, but I should have said that she took two steps back, one on each side.  I could tell she didn’t want the foul little creatures around her feet. She’s very particular about her feet, as most horses are wont to be.  As they approached still nearer, she reared up a bit—not enough to bother me, but just enough for the orphan to slip off her haunches and land with a poof on his seat in the snow.  The goblins cackled grotesquely and I’m sure that they thought they had secured for themselves a snack.  They stopped laughing though when I kicked my leg over Hysteria’s shoulder and dropped lightly to the ground.

With a quick motion, I pulled my knife, still stained red from crabapple pie, from my boot.  It was a small enough weapon to face off six attackers and I would have much rather had a sword, but I had been forced to sell my sword in order to get a fellow out of prison.  I didn’t really know him, but he was the beloved of a poor but beautiful farm girl. In retrospect it would have been better if he had not turned out to be a werewolf, but that is another story.  If I ever write this down, maybe I’ll say that I sold it to get the poor but beautiful farm girl out of prison and that I slew the werewolf.  Yes, that’s a much better story.

“What are you doing?” asked the orphan.

“Recalling the time I slew a werewolf,” said I.

“Finally something useful!” he exclaimed.

The two foremost goblins looked at one another.  While six or seven goblins might sneak up on a man when he was asleep, or might chase down a maiden who was alone and defenseless, they would have to be extraordinary members of their species to take on a seasoned warrior with a weapon.

“That’s right potato head!” shouted the orphan, jumping to his feet. “Werewolves, vampires, giants; he’s killed them all.

“Gree yard?” said the first goblin.

“Grock tor,” said the second goblin.

“I don’t think they understand us,” said I.

The first began to skirt around me to the right and the second began to skirt around me to the left.  The others were following along.  I don’t know whether their intention was to surround me so that they could attack from all sides at once, or to get by me and get at the boy, but I wasn’t going to let either of those things happen.  I took a quick step to the right and kicked the big round head of the first goblin, which flew almost as far as the kickball I kicked as a child, and of course the rest of the goblin went right along with his head.

As a child, kickball was one of my favorite pastimes.  We had our own little team and I was almost always the bowler. Sally and Gervil and several other boys made up the outfield.  Tuki played first, second, and third base.

“Look out for the other one!” the orphan cried, interrupting my fond memories.

I twisted around to my left and kicked the head of the second goblin, sending it in a lovely arc off into the forest.  If my first kick had scored a double, which is to say a trip to second base, then this kick must surely have been a triple.  And I would dare Tuki to say that either of those goblin’s heads went out of bounds.

“Look out!” the orphan shouted again.

I turned to give him a dirty look and saw a third goblin who was attempting to use the distraction of his fellows, which is to say their current use as substitute kickballs, to slice my Achilles tendon with a rusty old razor.  With a quick jab, I thrust the point of my knife into his head and he dropped to the ground—dead.  When I looked back around, the other goblins had wisely run away.

Eaglethorpe Buxton and the Elven Princess

Chapter Six: Wherein I begin to tell the story of the Queen of Aerithraine.

Hysteria clomped along slowly down the snow-covered road for some time.  The orphan was so quiet that for a while I thought he must have fallen asleep.  But at last he stirred and shifted a bit in his seat, which is to say upon Hysteria’s flank.  I myself had been quiet as I remembered the events of that horrible night.

“What are you thinking about?” asked the orphan.

“I’m thinking about that horrible night,” I replied.

“Did you never find your family?”

“No, though I searched for weeks.  My mother was to make me a blueberry pie that night, and I not only have never seen my mother since, I did not get to eat that pie either.”

“I’m sorry I brought up such a painful memory,” he said, and then paused. “Do you suppose that the purple drops on the floor could have been from your blueberry pie?”

“Fiends!” said I.  “To rob a man of his mother and his pie in the same night!”

“Perhaps it were best that we think on something else,” said he.

“Perhaps,” I agreed.

“If you are really such a great storyteller…”

“The greatest in the world.”

“And if the story of the Queen of Aerithraine is a great story…”

“Wonderful.  Exciting. True.  Profound.”

“Well, maybe you could tell me the story.”

“I get half a crown for that story in Illustria,” said I.

“I have a shiny penny,” said he.

“The story begins in Aerithraine, far to the west, along the coast of the great ocean sea.  From storied Illustria, its capital, to Cor Cottage just outside Dewberry Hills in River County, Aerithraine has been a great and powerful country for some seven hundred years more or less.  By more or less, I mean that it has been more or less seven hundred years that Aerithraine has been a country and that it has been more or less great and more or less powerful during those seven hundred years.  But about fifty years ago, it was less.  That was when the old king died, and as is the way of kings, a new one was crowned.  He was King Julian the Rectifier.

“He was called Julian the Rectifier because he was chiefly interested in rectifying.  He spent most of his time rectifying.  He rectified all over the place.  And he was good at it.  He rectified like nobody else.”

“It means setting things to right,” said the orphan.

“Of course it does and that is just what he did.  Under his reign, the kingdom was prosperous and wealthy.  And, as he wasn’t so interested in warring as in rectifying, there was peace throughout the land.  King Julian had only one son, and he passed to that son the strongest and wealthiest kingdom in all of Duaron, and if it had only remained so, Elleena would have become nothing more than a minor princess perhaps.”

“Which would not have made a half-crown story,” pointed out the orphan.

“That is so.”

“Carry on then.”

“King Justin was the son of Julian.  I hear tell that he was once called Justin the Good and Justin the Wise, though now when storytellers refer to him, they usually call him Justin the Weak or Justin the Unready.”

“What do you call him?”

“I just call him King Justin,” said I.  “Though I truly believe he may deserve the title Justin the Brave, it is not what the listeners want to hear.”

“Go on.”

“King Justin married a princess from the faraway land of Goth.  The Arch-Dukes of Goth, which is to say the rulers of that land, have for generations, maintained power through a tightly woven web of treaties with its mighty neighbors.  Their chief barter in this endeavor is the marriage of the many female members of the family.  I hear the current Arch-Duke has but four daughters at least as of yet, but his father who was Arch-Duke before him had seventeen, and his father, which is to say the grandfather of the current Arch-Duke had nineteen.”

“That hurts just thinking about it.”

“What?”

“Nothing.  Go on.”

“It must have been quite a coup of diplomacy for the Arch-Duke of Goth to make a match with the King of Aerithraine, but he did, marrying to the King his daughter Beatrix.  And though I hear that the women of that country wear too much make-up, she was nevertheless accounted a great beauty.  She had pale white skin, raven hair, smoldering eyes, and a gold ring in her nose, as is the fashion in the east.

“King Justin and Queen Beatrix had four strong sons, the eldest of whom was Prince Jared.  He was particularly beloved of the people.  I saw him once when I was a child of four or five, sitting on my poor old father’s shoulders as the Dragon Knights passed on their tall white steeds. That is to say, I was seated on my father’s shoulders and the Prince was not.  Neither were the Dragon Knights nor their steeds.  I don’t remember why the Prince and the knights were in River County. It was too long ago.  He would have grown to be King upon his father’s death if it was not for…”

“Goblins!”

“Yes, that’s right.  You didn’t say you had heard the story before, though I’ll warrant it wasn’t told as well…”

“No!” screamed the orphan.  “Goblins! Right there!”

He pointed straight ahead, and sure enough, stepping out of the shadows and into the moonlight were a half dozen creepy little man-things. They were no more than three feet tall, their over-sized round heads, glowing eyes, and gaping maws giving away their identity.  As they came closer those mouths widened into grins filled with jagged little teeth, looking far too much like the teeth on the blade of a cross-cut saw for my taste. They brandished what weapons they had, mostly things they had picked up from the ground—a stick, a length of cord with a knot in it.  But a couple of them carried old, discarded straight razors.

Eaglethorpe Buxton and the Elven Princess

Chapter Five: Wherein I reveal the mystery of my family.

“You said that you do not live far from here,” I mentioned, once we had finished the pies.  One might say the purloined pies, but I would not.  I would instead insist that they rightly belonged to us in recompense for our unjust confinement.

“That is correct,” said he.

“The pies rightfully belong to us?”

“No.  I live not far from here.  Are you carrying on some other conversation in your head about the pies?”

“Of course not,” I replied.  “You are an orphan.”

“I am well aware of that fact.  There is no need to keep rubbing it in my face.”

“What I mean is you don’t have a proper home anymore now that you are an orphan.”

“Even an orphan may have extended family,” he explained.  “Perhaps I live with them.”

“Do you?”

“One might suppose that I do.”

“One might suppose a great many things,” said I.  “But would it not be better to base our future activities less on supposition than on actual remembrances?”

“One might suppose we should,” said he.

“You have an odd way of talking,” I commented.  “You don’t quite sound orphanish at all.”

“Really?  How many orphans have you known?”

“Quite a few actually,” I revealed.  “The Queen of Aerithraine…”

“With whom you once had the pleasure of spending a fortnight.”

“Indeed it is so.  The Queen of Aerithraine, with whom I once had… well, she has a soft spot for orphans. Some years back she opened an orphanage called Elleena’s House.”

“Is that because her name is Elleena?”

“Why would her name cause her to have a soft spot for orphans?”  I wondered.  “No, I believe it is because she was an orphan herself.”

“No.  Is it called Elleena’s House because her name is Elleena?  And how could a queen be an orphan?  Doesn’t she have to be a princess?  Or did the King find her in an orphanage and come to sweep her off her feet? That would be a lovely story.”

“Well, there is no king,” said I.

“Gah!” he exclaimed.  “You are the worst storyteller in the world.  You are messing everything up and making me confused.”

“Forsooth!  I am the best storyteller in the world.  I do not expect you to know so, as you are an unfortunate orphan without any knowledge of the world.”  I looked over my shoulder at his pinched little face.  “In truth I was not trying to tell you the story of the Queen of Aerithraine.  If I had, you would be filled with wonder and excitement.  I have made half my fortune from that story, and a better story, a truer story, a more profound story; you are not likely to hear in all the days of your life.  But I was not trying to tell that story.  I was trying to explain that the Queen of Aerithraine has a soft spot for orphans. In fact, I suppose that I do so myself, as I am almost an orphan.”

“You are almost an orphan?”

“Indeed.”

“How can you be almost an orphan?”

“Why couldn’t I be?” I demanded.  “If anyone can be, I could be.”

“What I mean is…”  He took a deep breath.  “How can one be almost an orphan?”

“Oh.  Well, it’s only that my parents aren’t dead.”

“I see,” said he.

“But they were kidnapped,” I confided.

“Are you sure they didn’t just run away?” he asked.

“It was a stormy night and I had been away from my parents’ home, which is to say my former home, which is to say Cor Cottage just outside Dewberry Hills, and I was returning for a visit.  As I approached I heard a disturbance, though at first I attributed it to the sounds of the storm.  Then I looked up at the cottage window to see figures silhouetted on the shade, locked in a grim struggle.”

“What did you do?”

“Why, I rushed forward to aid my poor old mother, who as I recall smells of warm pie, and my poor old father, and my sister Celia, and my aunt Oregana, and my cousin Gervil, and my other cousin Tuki, who is a girl cousin, which is to say a cousin who is a girl, which makes sense, because whoever heard of a boy named Tuki.”

“They were all struggling by the window?”

“They may all have been struggling by the window, or some of them may have been, or perhaps only one of them was struggling by the window.  I don’t know, because when I burst in through the front door, they were all gone.  The back door was open wide and the rain was splashing in.”

“What happened to them?”

“I know not.”

“Were there any clues?”

“Indeed there were.”

“What were they?”

“The table had been set for nine, which was two places too many.”

“Three places!” said the orphan triumphantly.  “You thought I wasn’t paying attention.  There was your father, mother, sister, aunt, and two cousins. That makes six.”

“They would also have set a place for Geneva.”

“Of course they would have.  Who is she?”

“She’s my other cousin, which is to say Gervil’s sister, only she’s imaginary, but she wasn’t always imaginary, which is to say she died, but Gervil still sees her, so Aunt Oregana always sets a place for her.”

“What other clues?”

I listed them off.  “There was a knife stuck in Gervil’s bed.  Floorboards had been loosened in several rooms.  There were drops of purple liquid leading out the back door.  And someone had hung bunches of onions from the rafters of the dining room.  Most mysterious of all was the fact that the tracks led away from the house only fifty feet and then disappeared entirely.”

The orphan gripped me around the waist and squeezed.  “How terrible,” he said, in a tiny voice.