Eaglethorpe Buxton and the Elven Princess

Chapter Nineteen: Wherein I make an escape, a plot element that I normally wouldn’t reveal, but you know that I am alive anyway because I am telling you the story.

I was given another bowl of the delicious mush, which I ate, this time with more difficulty because my back really ached when I bent over to eat like a dog.  I certainly didn’t sleep though.  Oh you can be sure of that.  I didn’t sleep.  Knowing that you are going on trial in one hour is not nearly the cure for sleepiness that knowing you are to be executed in the morning is.

“Eaglethorpe,” a voice called.

I turned to see Jholiera bathed in the light of the setting sun as it diffused through the trees.  She was no longer dressed as a boy.  She had on a leather dress cut in an elven style with a leaf motif carved into it. It left her shoulders bare and though her form was slight, there was no longer any question that she was a young woman. She had golden jewelry on her arms and a delicate golden crown on her head.

“Eaglethorpe, how are you?”

“I’ve a pretty nasty stab wound in my back, and my arms are aching from them being tied behind me.  I think I skinned my knee when I was trying to eat from a bowl like a dog, but there’s no way to check.  Oh yes, and they are going to kill me in a few hours.  Other than that, I’m fine.”

“Come here, close to the bars.”

I did as directed and she reached through the bars and cut the bands that were holding my wrists together.  My muscles cried out as blood rushed back into them, and a shooting pain went from my back straight into my heart.

“I think I shall die before they have a chance to kill me,” said I. “Serves them right.”

“Don’t say that.  I’m going to get you out of here.”

“How?”

“I’ll be back after midnight.  In the meantime, try to get some rest.”

“You have no idea, girl,” said I, as she went off into the trees.

Remarkably I did sleep this time.  I must have.  I don’t remember falling asleep or even sitting down.  But when I was awakened, by small pebbles hitting against my face, I found myself sitting against the wall of the cave.

“Ow!  Stop it,” said I, as one of the small pebbles hit me in the eye.

“Quiet you,” said Jholiera.  “I’m almost ready to rescue you.  Get over here and wait by the cell door.  You have to be ready at a moment’s notice.”

“Why aren’t you rescuing me now?”

“I don’t have the key yet.”

“You don’t have the key?”

“Calm down.  I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

She did return, but it wasn’t in a few minutes.  It was quite a bit later.  In fact, by the time she did return, I was beginning to fear that the first rays of predawn light might make escape impossible.  But when she arrived, Jholiera did have the key.  She quickly opened the cell door, and taking me by the hand, led me through a maze of trees.  We hurried around massive trunks and over fallen logs, through curtains of trailing vines, until we came to another small glade.  Here was my beautiful steed, which is to say Hysteria.

I can tell you I had a hard time saddling my horse due to my injury.  But with the elven princess’s help, the deed was soon done.  As I prepared to mount, Jholiera stopped me.

“Thank you Eaglethorpe,” she said, and gave me a tender kiss on the cheek.

“You are coming with me, aren’t you?” I asked.  “You can’t live with such a horrible father, or marry such a horrible husband.”

“Don’t worry.  My father is not so bad.  And Iidreiion probably won’t want to marry me anyway after he finds out what I had to do to get the key away from his cousin.  Besides, I’ve had enough adventuring for now.  I just want to stay home and be safe.”

With that she gave me an even tenderer kiss on the cheek.  I climbed into my saddle and took off through the woods, just as the early dawn was beginning to break.  And I didn’t see the little elven princess again.

Eaglethorpe Buxton and the Elven Princess

Chapter Eighteen: Wherein I find out what fate the elves intend for me.

It was well into the morning before I was given a clue as to what was going on. Three new elven men arrived outside the bars of my cell.  I mean that they were new because I hadn’t seen them before, not that they were new because they were newly born.  In fact, they were fully grown though their age was indeterminate, all looking quite youthful.  One had long grey hair while the other two sported long blond locks.  It was the grey-haired elf who spoke to me.

“You are to be tried for the kidnapping of a princess of the elven people,” he said.

“This is a big mistake,” said I.  “I had nothing to do with any kidnapping.  Quite the contrary.  I was helping her return to her home.”

“All the important details will come out in the trial,” he replied.  “Our only purpose at this moment is to introduce ourselves.  I am King Jholhard and I will act as your judge.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” I sighed.  “I know that I will be treated fairly by Jholiera’s father.”

“This is Iidreiion, Jholiera’s betrothed, who will act as the prosecutor.”

I didn’t know what to say to this fellow.  I looked into his face and didn’t see any obvious malice.  Maybe he would simply present the facts as known. I certainly hoped he was dedicated to the truth and not to seeking out a conviction at any cost as is so often the case in human societies.

“And this is Iidreiior and he will act as your defense counsel.”

“I am very pleased to meet…” I stopped and looked from my defense counselor to the prosecutor, back to my defense counselor, back to the prosecutor, back to the defense counselor, back to the prosecutor.  They looked exactly the same.  They were twins.

“Um, well when is my trial to begin?” I asked.

“In one hour,” replied the king.  “You should take your rest until then.”

I was not going to rest until then.  I defy anyone to “rest until then” in a similar situation.  Try this with someone you know.  Tell them “I’m going to tell you something that will change your life in one hour.  Rest until then.”  See if they rest.  Or tell them “In one hour you will find out if you live or die.  Rest until then.”  I will wager that they won’t rest.  Or tell them “In one hour I’m going to give you a pie.”  Then don’t give them a pie.  They won’t rest.  That may not be exactly the same, but they won’t rest.  Watch and see.

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

“I’m pondering the future.”

“Such as it is,” he said, nodding sagely.  Then the three walked away, leaving me to my own thoughts.

An hour later I was marched out of my cell and taken to an open glade within the wood.  This space had obviously been used as a ceremonial center for many years. Covered areas had been built for spectators as well as individuals involved in whatever ordinance was being performed.  The awnings were made of wood, but they were covered with many layers of vines, while here and there, trees grew up through them.  Most of the seats were intricately carved of stone and had been worn very smooth by extended use.  I was led to a spot on one side, where Iidreiior waited.  On the other side of the glade, stood his twin.

A few minutes after I arrived, a whole crowd of elves began filing into the open forest area.  There must have been about two hundred of them.  Though I carefully watched for her, Jholiera was nowhere to be seen.  At last King Jholhard appeared and took his place in a stone chair raised only slightly higher than the others.

“What is the charge?” asked the king without any preamble.

“The prisoner is charged with the abduction of a princess of the royal blood,” said Iidreiion.

“How does he plead?”

“Guilty,” said Iidreiior.

“What?  Wait.”

“After having weighed all the important details,” said the king, placing far too much emphasis on the word important for my liking.  “The prisoner is hereby found guilty as charged.”

“What?  Wait.”

“Recommended sentence?”

“Death,” said Iidreiion.

“Agreed,” said Iidreiior.

“What?  Wait. What kind of trial is this?”  I demanded accusingly, my back straight, but without my arm being outstretched, as it was still tied to the other arm.

“It is a show trial,” said the king.  “It is called a show trial because it is only for show.  There is no real justice involved.”

“I know what a show trial is,” said I.  “I’ve been in enough of them.”

The two hundred or so elves in attendance watched mutely as I was dragged back to the cell in the cave and left there once again.  All in all, it was hardly worth being dragged to the glade in the first place.  They could just as easily have told me I was guilty and condemned to death right there. Sitting down, I leaned against the wall of the cave and winced as my back came into contact with the stone. After a few minutes the king appeared outside the bars.

“Why bother with a show trial that lasts three minutes?” I wondered.

“As I said, it is for show,” he said.

“But why?  I never kidnapped your daughter.  I was helping her come home.”

“Yes I know.  It’s her punishment.  She needs to learn that she can’t run off.  There are consequences.  Your trial and your execution tomorrow morning will remind her of that fact.”

“You’re going to execute an innocent man to make a point to your daughter?”

“It’s not as though you were an elf,” he said.  “You’re only human.”

Eaglethorpe Buxton and the Elven Princess

Chapter Seventeen: Wherein I become prisoner of the elves.

I must admit that I slept well, notwithstanding the fact that I was using a rock for my pillow, and I had no mattress but the bare ground, and I hadn’t even my own blanket to keep warm.  I slept well.  I slept well until just before dawn, when suddenly, which is to say all of a sudden and without warning, I felt the weight of several bodies fall upon me.  I struggled and threw one or two punches that found their targets, but having been attacked in my sleep and no doubt lulled into a state of drowsiness by elven magic, it was inevitable that I was overpowered.  They took me captive, which is to say they tied my hands behind my back, gagged me, and put a sack over my head.  Then they hobbled my legs with a piece of rope so that I could take only the most mincing of steps.

I heard some shouting and I thought I recognized Jholiera’s voice, but with the bag over my head it was impossible to make out what was being said.  Once I thought I heard her demand my release, but I wasn’t released.  I wasn’t sure who had attacked me, but I was relatively sure that it wasn’t goblins. Oh to be sure, goblins are thick in those parts.  But had goblins come upon a sleeping man, they would have sliced his throat rather than taken him captive.

The point of something sharp jabbed me in the back.  I didn’t know if it was a dagger or a sword or a pike or a javelin or a sharp stick, but the meaning behind it seemed clear enough to me.  I was to go in the direction opposite from the side in which I was being jabbed, which is to say the back of me, so I should go forward.  I did, but I didn’t go very fast, being hobbled as I was.  Despite the fact that it had been my captors who had hobbled me, they didn’t seem to want to take that into consideration, for they kept jabbing me to hurry me up.

It is hard to judge time when your senses are deprived, which is to say your head is in a sack.  But as I was marched along, enough light came in through the weave of the cloth that I could tell when dawn arrived and could more or less make out in which direction the sun was to be found as it move up and across the sky.  We didn’t stop to break our fast, and we didn’t stop for elevenses, and we didn’t stop for lunch.  When we didn’t stop for tea, I tried to protest by planting my feet on the ground and refusing to go on.  The only effect that my protest had was an even fiercer jab with a dagger or a sword or a pike or a javelin or a sharp stick right below my left shoulder blade—fierce enough to draw blood.  This, as you can imagine, didn’t make the walk any more fun at all.

Fortunately it was only a few more hours after that fierce jab when we arrived at our destination.  I was jerked and pulled around until they had me right where they wanted me.  Then my hood was pulled off, revealing to me three of my abductors.  They were warriors, wearing shining armor.  Their long golden hair and long pointed ears, as well as their stature, gave evidence to their obvious relation to my little half-orphan friend, who was at that moment nowhere to be found.  The warriors removed my gag and hobble but kept my hands tied.  Then they left me.

I looked around to find that I was in a small cave that had been turned into a prison with metal bars across its entrance.  From the mouth of the cave I could see nothing but trees and forest. Inside the cave there was nothing but a ratty old blanket on the rough stone ground.  You may think that it would be impossible to sleep under the circumstances, and ordinarily I might agree with you.  But as I had been awakened in the middle of the night and cruelly marched almost an entire day, I was very tired and very sore and the wound in my back was beginning to sting.  I suspected that without being cleaned it might gather an infection, especially in such a place as I now found myself in, full of noxious cave vapors.

When I woke, there was a small bowl of mush sitting just inside the bars.  It was mildly humiliating to have to eat like a dog, since my hands were still tied behind my back, but I did it.  I have learned on the few occasions that I have found myself behind bars that one should keep up one’s strength if possible. So if you are behind bars and you are given food, you should eat it.  In the jails of Theen, I was lucky when I got a maggot-filled potato.  In the prisons in Aerithraine I have eaten curds and stale bread.  Food in Lyrrian prisons are a mixed bag, depending upon which city-state you find yourself.  And woe be to him who is imprisoned in Thulla-Zor.  I was once thrown in a tomb-like cell there and had to hunt for my own food—and you don’t want to know what it was.  Imagine my surprise when I ate this bowl of mush then to find a delicious mix of unborn grains and dried fruits.  So I ate. I sat down against the wall.  I waited to see what would come.

Eaglethorpe Buxton and the Elven Princess

Chapter Sixteen: Wherein we travel for two days without my companion uttering a single word.

Jholeira curled up in my blanket next to the fire and went to sleep without another word.  I didn’t think this strange, but when she did not deign to speak to me the following morning I began to feel a little put off.  I decided that if she wasn’t going to speak to me, then I wouldn’t speak to her either.  We packed up and left our campsite in complete silence.  By elevenses I was getting rather tired of the quiet.  Over a brief meal of raisins and cheese I tried first to coax her and then to trick her into speaking.  She would have none of it however and I eventually stopped trying.

The little path that we followed wound down through a series of small valleys, eventually coming to the stream.  The trees grew thick on both sides of the stream and indeed on the far side there was a vast expanse of forest that is Elven Wood.  The stream itself was no more than twenty feet wide and its broadest expanse and in those places where it widened out thus, it was only a few inches deep.  Though the banks were icy, the water was clear and free flowing.  Upon reaching it in late afternoon, we followed it southeast until, finding a narrow spot where the water deepened to several feet, I stopped to drink and look for fish.

The greatest skill I ever learned, with the single possible exception of story telling which is more of an art form than a skill, is that of guddling fish. Fish that have swum up the shallow part of a stream, will often take shelter under a rock or a ledge when they come to a deeper and slower moving part of a river.  When they do, they become prey for the guddler.  He reaches his hand under the ledge, knowing where a fish ought to be, and carefully locates the fish’s tail.  Then he begins tickling the fish with his finger, tickling its tail, then tickling its belly, and finally tickling right under the gills. Then with a quick grasp, he pulls the fish from the water and tosses it up onto the shore, ready to be cleaned, cooked, and eaten.  If the temperature of the water made the fish sluggish, you couldn’t tell it by the ones I found, though it didn’t do me any good sticking my arm in.  I caught two lovely river trout that day, one which I cleaned and cooked over the fire for our supper, and the other which I kept captive by running a string through its gill, and tying one end to a sapling, and tossing the other end, attached to the fish, back in the water.  This second fish we ate for breakfast.

It was late the following afternoon before we reached the intersection of the stream with the East Road.  By this time I had resolved myself to the fact that my little orphan boy/girl was never going to speak to me again, but as we crossed the small bridge, which spanned the juxtaposition of the road and the stream, as bridges are wont to do, she at last broke her silence.

“We should spend the night on this side of the stream.”

“Why?”

“The forest is dangerous, especially at night.”

“I don’t care,” said I.  “I’m not talking to you.”

“Yes you are,” she replied.

“No.  I am not.”

“I was not talking to you, but now I am.  But you are definitively talking to me.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes you are.”

“I’m not talking to you.  I’m just telling you that I’m not talking to you.”

“That means that you are talking to me, because in order to tell a person something you have to talk to them.”

“No you don’t.”

“Now you are just being contrary,” said she.

“No I’m not.”

“Fine,” said she.  “I don’t care whether you are talking to me or not…”

“Yes you do.”

“I don’t care whether you are talking to me or not and I don’t care whether you are being contrary or not.  In either case we should spend the night on this side of the stream.”

“No we shouldn’t,” said I.

“No?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because,” I explained.

“Well as long as your reasoning is sound,” said she.

“No it isn’t.”

We spent the night on the west side of the bridge, just at the edge of the trees on that side of the stream.  By the time we made camp, it was too late for me to find any fish to guddle, so we ate dried beef and drank coffee for our supper.  Jholeira curled up in the only blanket while I snuggled up in my coat and set my head upon a large flat rock to use as a pillow.

“Are you cold?” she asked.

“No.”

“I’m sorry I stopped talking to you.  You have been a very great help to me and you didn’t have to and here I am wrapped up in your only blanket while you have nothing but your coat to keep you warm.”

“I have the fire.  Besides, it is only fitting that you have the blanket, being an orphan or a girl or a princess or some combination of the three.”

I stayed awake quite late watching the stars and listening to Hysteria complain about her lack of oats.  She should have been happy, as in that particular spot by the bridge there grew not only an abundance of grass but some early flowering szigimon, which any stable master can tell you is the very best horse feed in the world.  Many times she has had to make due with busy grass, which is the least best horse feed in the world—not that it is bad for horses, but it does nothing more than give them something to chew on and doesn’t provide any real nourishment.  You would think by now she would know when she had it good.

“What are you doing?” asked a small voice from the other side of the campfire.

“I’m pondering horse feed,” said I.

“Well, go to sleep.” It must have been some kind of elf magic, because no sooner had she said this than my eyes closed, seemingly of their own volition.

Eaglethorpe Buxton and the Elven Princess

Chapter Fifteen: Wherein we take the road less traveled.

The following morning found both Jholeira and me awake and refreshed.  So we made an early start.  It was not as early as Ellwood Cyrene who had left at the crack of dawn.  However when I went down to the common room that morning, not only did I find that my friend had paid for breakfast for my elf girl and myself, but he had left a package for me as well.  Wrapped in a large oiled cloth, were several pounds of dried beef, a wheel of yellow cheese, two or three pounds of raisins and a small cloth sack with a half dozen coins in it.

Ellwood Cyrene never seemed to be in need of money, despite the fact that he seldom took payment for his many acts of manly heroism.  I have seen a bucket of gold coins gathered together by a town to pay the hero that saved them from the threat of a raging monster, only to have it politely refused by a smiling Ellwood Cyrene.  I have seen him pass out coppers to every orphan in a six block radius of the inn in which he was staying.  To be fair I have seen him plunder more than one baggage train, and on numerous occasions he has rifled through the pockets of a man he has just stabbed—but who hasn’t done that, when you get right down to it.

I was not able to procure any oats for my poor steed, which is to say Hysteria, but I did get a small bundle of dried hay to supplement the small amount of forage we were likely to find in that country in winter.

We set off on the East Road, but following the advice I had been given, we soon turned off to the north, following a cattle path that wandered over the hills and down into the valley.  Our new path veered off from our previous course, but not enough that I thought we would lose our way.  In fact at teatime, we stopped among a small copse of trees at the top of a hill. From this point we were able to look down to the south across a vast valley.  True to Ellwood’s warning, a great battle was being fought.  It was impossible to tell who the two sides were, as their banners at this distance were too difficult to read.  All that was certain was that both sides were humans. I took some small pains to make sure that we weren’t spotted, but considering the distance and the chaos on the battlefield, I judged that there was little chance of it.

After journeying the remainder of the day, we made camp just off the path in a little hollow which had been formed by three massive boulders piled one atop of the other two.  I can only imagine that some giant piled them up thus as there was no nearby mountain down which they might have slid to come to rest in such a fortuitous configuration, which is to say a pretty good shape.

“We should reach the edge of Elven Wood tomorrow,” I told my companion.

“Really?  I don’t seem to recognize any landmarks.”

“Maybe when we get closer,” I offered.  “How long since you’ve been home?”

“Six or seven years I would suppose.”

“That must be tough, being without your family for so long.”

“Yes.”  She sighed. “And what about you?  You’ve been without your family for quite a while now too.”

“What?”

“How long has it been?”

“How long has what been?”

“How long has it been since your family disappeared?”

“Oh.  That. I really can’t say.”

“You know, I’ve been thinking.”  Jholeira stood up and began to pace back and forth beside the campfire. “The purple drops on the floor, as I’ve already said, could be from the blueberry pie you were expecting.”

“Fiends!” said I.

“As far as Gervil’s knife being stuck in his bed is concerned, that could be an indicator of foul play or of nothing at all.”

“I see.”

“The floorboards being pried up however tells us something.  Whoever the culprit or culprits were, they were looking for something hidden under the floor.  Money maybe?  Family jewels?”

“The unpublished manuscripts by the world famous Eaglethorpe Buxton,” I offered.

“I suppose that is conceivable,” said she.  “What I don’t understand is the onions in the rafters.  The only thing I can think of is that they were trying to ward off vampires.”

“Monsters!” said I.  “But wait. Isn’t that supposed to be garlic?”

“Maybe they couldn’t find any.  Or maybe they didn’t know the difference.  Garlic looks a lot like an onion.”

“Oh, my family would know the difference,” said I.  “My poor old father was a fine onion farmer.  In fact one variety, the Winter Margram onion was named for him.  My cousin Gervil wrote an epic poem about onions, though I was never able to memorize more than the first five hundred twelve lines.”

“Is that all?” she wondered.

“Tuki was Onion Queen three years running.”

“So it is possible that your family would have had onions around?  Say, hanging from the rafters?”

“Only at harvest time.”

“Was it harvest time?”

“Was what harvest time?”

“Was it harvest time when your family disappeared?”

“It could have been.”

“So there really are no clues at all,” postulated the half-orphan.

“What about the tracks?” I asked.  “What about the tracks that ended mysteriously after only fifty feet?”

“You said it was a stormy night.  The rain probably washed the tracks away.”

“You’re right,” said I.  “The next time it will be morning.”

“What do you mean next time?”

“Um, nothing.”

“You mean the next time your family gets kidnapped or the next time you tell about it?”

“Well…”

“Your family never was stolen at all!”  She stood up with back straight and finger pointed accusingly.  She looked quite intimidating.  “You lied!”

“It’s wasn’t a lie,” I explained.  “It was a story.  Well, it was a first draft.”

Eaglethorpe Buxton and the Elven Princess

Chapter Fourteen: Wherein we spend the evening and night in the inn.

Ellwood had just returned when the husky innkeeper appeared in the common room and made an announcement. His announcement wasn’t loud and it needn’t have been. The room wasn’t that large and there weren’t that many people in it. I counted sixteen, ourselves included. There were the three of us, the innkeeper and serving wench, six men and two women who were obviously locals—farmers no doubt, a traveling tinker; a sell-sword, which is to say a mercenary, who from the looks of things had not been doing too well; and a darkly cloaked figure in the corner. Now one might expect a darkly cloaked figure in the corner to be the cause of potential mischief, but the truth is that I have hardly ever been in an inn or a pub or a taproom or a tavern or a bar or a saloon that didn’t have a darkly cloaked figure in the corner. Most of the time, they do nothing more than mind their own business. It’s only those few who end up in stories causing trouble, that the name of darkly cloaked corner lurkers everywhere becomes tarnished.

“We are privileged to have in our presence today,” said the innkeeper, “the world famous storyteller Eaglethorn Beltbuckle.”

Ellwood snorted into his recently filled cup. Was it his twelfth or thirteenth refill? I stood up.

“Eaglethorpe Buxton at your service.” I casually moved around the room to find the best spot for story telling, eventually settling on a stool near the fireplace. “And this is the story of the Queen of Aerithraine.”

“Oh God! Not her again!” shouted Ellwood. “Don’t you have any new material?”

The sellsword at the bar began to get up, whether in defense of the Queen or of my story-telling or just to make for the outhouse I don’t know, but a single steely look from Ellwood put him in his seat again. Apparently neither of them had any doubt whom was top dog.

“I shall recount the tale of how I sold my sword to get a poor but beautiful farm girl out of prison and then slew a werewolf using only this fork!” I triumphantly pulled the fork from my fork pocket.

Suddenly the darkly cloaked figure in the corner jumped to his feet. He swept aside his cloak to reveal black armor and a dozen long thin knifes on a bandolier across his chest. He began plucking the knives and launching them directly at Ellwood Cyrene, so quickly that seven were in flight at one time before the first met its destination. That destination was not, as had been intended, the torso of my friend, for Ellwood had jumped up at almost the same instant. With a quick flick of his wrist, he deflected the first two knives toward the wooden bar, where they stuck with loud thunks. He ducked to the side of the third and fourth knife, and then grabbed the fifth, sixth, and seventh right out of the air and sent them back at the cloaked figure. By this time the assailant had thrown two more knives, but Ellwood easily dodged them. One of them hit the wall just near my head. The other went into the fireplace causing a cloud of embers to float up into the air like fireflies. And then it was all over, for the three knives that my friend had returned to the would-be assassin had all found their marks—one in the man’s right hand, one in his chest, and one in his throat.

Everything was quiet for one moment, and then chaos erupted as the townsfolk and the traveling tinker rushed this way and that to get out of the way of a battle that was already over. In thirty seconds, the three of us, and the darkly cloaked dead body, were the only ones left in the room. Even the sellsword had fled.

“That’s better,” said Ellwood. “Everyone likes a werewolf story.”

I recounted my story of the farm girl and the werewolf, at least so far as I had revised it up to that time, to my friend and my half-orphan companion. I’m not going to tell it now, because I want to make some final editing before it sees print. You should always get a true story just right before you print it.

Afterwards we made our way up to our rooms and I have to say that they were quite nice. I would have half a mind to write up a review for a travel company and give that particular inn three stars if only I could remember what the name of the little town was. In any case the rooms were very nice, all the more so since they were free to me. I made sure that my little elf princess was settled in and had the door locked before preparing for bed myself, and was just about to lie down when there was a knock at my door.

I pulled the portal open a crack to find Ellwood Cyrene. He leaned in very close to me. I could smell the ale on his breath.

“I have something to tell you,” he said.

“Yes?” I leaned closer only to better hear him.

“I’ll be gone when you wake Eaglethorpe,” said he. “Don’t continue on the East Road. There will be a battle fifteen miles east of here tomorrow. You will have to make a detour.”

“All right.”

“And Eaglethorpe?”

“Yes?”

“Be careful, won’t you?” He reached up his hand and brushed aside a strand of hair from my forehead. Then he turned and walked down the hallway to his room.

Eaglethorpe Buxton and the Elven Princess

Chapter Thirteen: Wherein I run into an old friend unexpectedly.

Princess Jholeira and I, and of course Hysteria, made our way east, following the road which is called the East Road, which is only appropriate, as it goes east… and it is a road. I had pretty much accepted that the girl thought she was a princess. She was convincing enough as she told me of life growing up among the royalty of the elven wood. I listened to her descriptions, because you can never have too much local color to throw into a story, but I didn’t commit much to memory as far as the events of her life were concerned. There just wasn’t much of a plot there. But to return to the point, generally speaking, if someone thinks they are a princess, I have found that it doesn’t much matter whether anyone else thinks they are or not.

At teatime we stopped and I made a fire, brewing some coffee and whipping up a pan full of biscuits. These were not like biscuits in Aerithraine. There biscuits are crunchy little sweet things—what my poor old father called “cookies” though you bake them instead of cooking them. These were what they call biscuits in Lyrria—something in the sort of a soft scone made with flour, salt, and animal lard. If we had only had a bit of honey they would have been quite good, but alas I had no honey. They filled us up though and both Jholeira and I were glad for them. Hysteria didn’t think very much of them though and she was mopey again for the rest of the day.

We traveled until dark was starting to settle. I had just decided that it was time to look for a campsite when my little orphan princess spotted the lights of houses some distance away. We continued and arrived at a thorpe, which is to say a hamlet or a small village. It was very small too, having only a single inn and half a dozen farmhouses. The inside of the inn was warm and inviting. We were greeted at a large counter just inside, by a husky innkeeper with arms like tree trunks and hands like hams. He had thick whiskers on either side of his face and when he smiled he revealed that both front teeth were gone.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

“We would like a room.”

“Two rooms,” said the girl. “And stabling for our horse.”

“Ixnay on the ootay oomsray,” said I. “I don’t have the money to pay for the one. I was hoping I might pay for it with my storytelling…”

“Is that the good-for-nothing no-count Eaglethorpe Buxton I see?” called a voice from the doorway beyond.

While the proprietor squinted at me as if to see if it truly were the good-for-nothing no-count Eaglethorpe Buxton in front of him and not a good-for-something mathematically fluent version, I turned to see my accuser. There in the doorway was my oldest and dearest friend—Ellwood Cyrene. He had a mug of ale in his hand and a smile on his face. He looked quite at home having left his armor and swords off as he relaxed, though I could see the two daggers he kept in his belt, the one he kept up his right sleeve, and the one inside his back collar, as well as his knife in his right boot and the throwing stars in his left.

“That cannot be Ellwood Cyrene,” said I, “walking around defenseless and drunk.”

He stepped forward and we embraced. It was a manly embrace. He held onto me a bit too long, but what of that? He was a bit tipsy no doubt. No one could ever doubt the manliness of Ellwood Cyrene.

“This is for two rooms and stabling,” said Ellwood, tossing the innkeeper a big gold coin. “No doubt Eaglethorpe will want to pay for his supper with story-telling.”

The proprietor’s face lit up. “It has been a long while since we’ve had a storyteller.”

“And it will continue to be a long while,” said Ellwood, punching me in a very manly way on the shoulder. “I said Eaglethorpe wanted to pay for his supper with story-telling. I didn’t say that he could. Come my friend, let me buy you a mug of the muddy liquid that passes for ale in these parts.”

And throwing his arm around my shoulder, in a very manly way, he led me into the common room of the inn. The orphan princess followed. We sat at a rough-hewn table and Ellwood waved for the serving wench. She was attractive, though not as plump as I like, and she didn’t have any of the buttons on her blouse undone, and it didn’t matter anyway because she had eyes only for Ellwood, who gave her a wink in return.

“Ale for my good friend,” he said. “And… when did you get a pet boy?”

“She’s a girl and an elf,” I whispered to him. “But I want to keep it quiet. You know how much trouble women can cause.”

He nodded sagely, and then smiled at the wench. “A glass of milk for this poor pathetic ragamuffin.”

Jholeira playfully stuck out her tongue at him and the serving wench let loose with a peel of musical laughter as she went to get our order. Ellwood bought round after round as we sat talking of our service in the Great Goblin War and about our many adventures together. At some point, when neither of us was paying attention, the wench brought us a loaf of bread and a joint of beef and we ate like kings.

We had almost finished our supper, when Ellwood left to answer nature’s call. I had gotten up several times by that point, but Ellwood is renowned for his large bladder. As he walked away, my little elf girl leaned over to me.

“Have you ever noticed what a pretty man your friend Ellwood is?”

“Yes. I mean no,” I answered. “Absolutely not. How, why, how would I notice something like that?”

Eaglethorpe Buxton and the Elven Princess

Chapter Twelve: Wherein I hear the story of a Princess of the Elves.

Not having a hare to cook for our morning meal, and in truth I never really expected there to be one, I didn’t bother building a fire. We shared cold pickles and Hysteria ate the last of her oats. The sun was high in the sky and even though we were eating our meager meal amid large drifts of snow, as long as we stayed in the sun, it was pleasant enough. As you can imagine, my mind was reeling at the possibility that my orphan boy was not only a girl and an elf, but quite possibly a seventy-nine year old half-orphan princess. My mind was so awash in the news that I scarcely paid any attention to the pickles I was eating. It was a real shame, because I enjoy a good pickle. My poor old mother made some of the best pickles ever. Did you know that pickles don’t have to come from cucumbers? You can pickle just about anything.

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

“I’m attempting to ponder pickles.”

“That figures,” said she.

“But I find myself unable to.”

“Oh? Why?”

“Because of you, my very own little liar.”

“Stop calling me a liar. I didn’t lie. Everything I’ve told you is the truth… except for the part about being a boy and being called Galfrid and being an orphan.”

“And now you claim to be a princess.”

“I am a princess,” she argued. “My father is Jholhard of the wood elves.”

“Come,” I said, wiping the pickle juice off my fingers. “Let’s get going and you can tell me your woeful tale as we ride.”

We remounted my noble steed, which is to say Hysteria, and started off once again down the road. The mood was subdued. At least the mood was subdued between myself and the half-orphan princess. Hysteria seemed quite jovial, and threatened to break into a trot on several occasions. I can only assume that she was happy to have had oats for elevenses. I am sure she didn’t realize that we had no more.

“It is just like in your story of the Queen of Aerithraine when she was trapped in Fall City,” Jholeira said at last.

“What is?”

“Being a princess. It’s like being in jail.”

“You were locked away?”

“Well, not really. I had the run of the entire wood. It’s just that I didn’t realize just how small a world that wood really was until I left.”

“Now we come to the first plot element,” said I. “Why did you leave?”

“I ran away,” she said. “I ran away because my father was going to force me to marry.”

“Well that’s hardly worth running away over,” said I. “I mean, fathers all across the world are busy arranging marriages for their daughters. What was wrong with the fellow? Wasn’t he tall enough? Was he bald? Did he have a wooden eye? It was a wooden eye, wasn’t it?”

“He didn’t have a wooden eye.”

“If he didn’t have a wooden eye, then what was wrong with him?” I wondered. “Maybe you are just being too picky.”

“There was nothing wrong with him. I just didn’t want to marry him. I didn’t want to marry anyone.”

“That seems a bit obstinate to me,” said I.

“Don’t berate me about it now,” she sulked. “I have paid dearly for running away. I was captured by slavers and taken halfway to Lyrria. I only escaped them when bandits attacked them. The bandits took me captive and carried me away to their camp in the mountains. I was taken from the bandit camp when trolls attacked it. The trolls took me into the woods. Then I was stolen away from the trolls by ogres, who put me in a cage and took me to their horrible city. There things got even worse when I was captured from the ogres by a band of wererats.”

“Hold on.” I counted them off on my fingers. “Slavers, bandits, trolls, ogres, and wererats… If this were my story, then next would come… harpies.”

“Pixies.”

“Oh, well, that doesn’t sound so bad. Pixies are little.”

“Evil pixies.”

“Still. Little.”

“Evil pixies from hell.”

“Ah. But at least you got away from them.”

“I managed to escape.”

“Because they’re little, right?”

“Um, yes. But then I was captured by pirates.”

“Pirates in the middle of North Lyrria? By the Ogre Mountains? Far away from the ocean?”

“They were on holiday.”

“Pirates on holiday?”

“Yes.”

“All right. And how did you get away from them?” I asked.

“One of the pirates, a woman named Prudence released me. I think she was jealous that the pirate captain might fancy me instead of her.”

“Prudence? Prudence the pirate?”

“That’s right.”

“And you say she was jealous?”

“Yes.”

I ran through the details in my mind. Slavers, bandits, trolls, ogres, and wererats. Then came the pixies, but I would change them to harpies. Finally there was Prudence the pirate. Prudence who was jealous. Possessive! Possessive Prudence the pirate. Or Prudence the possessive pirate. Yes, I quite like the sound of that. Prudence the Possessive Pirate—that had to be a half-crown story if ever I heard one. I could take a title like that, work it into something, take it to every pub and inn in Illustria, and make a fortune. Of course I would send the half-orphan elf girl a percentage. On the other hand, she said she was a princess. Princesses are rich. She probably doesn’t need the paltry amount made from the sale of a story. She might be insulted if I tried to pay her.

“Now I’ve had more than enough,” said she.

“You don’t want any money?”

“No. I’ve had more than enough adventure and I want to go home,” she replied. “Are you carrying on some other conversation in your head about how you are going to take my story to every pub and inn in Illustria, and make a fortune, and not pay me anything for it?”

“Of course not,” I replied. “You want to go home. And besides, I am a firm believer in maintaining all the appropriate copyrights.”

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.”

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.